Iran's Hassan Rouhani, A President Under Siege

The moderate president symbolizes the hope of rapprochement with the West in nuclear talks, but he must also deal with the regime's hardliners. Can he manage to strike a deal with the enemy?

President Rouhani speaking in Tehran on June 3, 2014
President Rouhani speaking in Tehran on June 3, 2014
Sara Daniel

TEHRAN — A group of students is horsing around by a campfire. When they can, on weekends, they come for some fresh air to this snow-capped mountain that overlooks Tehran. The girls have traded their headscarves for ski beanies, and the boys are bundled in fluorescent parkas.

They didn't get up here via the French-made ski lifts because the sanctions imposed on Iran make their maintenance impossible, resulting in too many accidents. So they walked up to the Tochal station. Here, they can relax, listen to music, nibble on sandwiches. We could be anywhere else, on any other mountain, far from the Islamic Republic of Iran. It's this illusion that these young people have come here seeking.

But reality brutally catches up with them. Suddenly, a small van filled with men in dark uniforms and with stern expressions pulls up. It's a raid by the Basij, the "morality police" militiamen. The group quickly scatters because the young people aren't married and are forbidden by Islamic Republic law to picnic together. "We're still not even allowed this modest pleasure," says a young woman, 24-year-old Hamideh.

"Nothing ever changes"

The young woman, in her last year of management studies at the University of Tehran, wanted to believe in President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in 2013. She thought he could put the dark years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad"s Iran behind them. She thought he would allow them to forget the populist former president's anti-Semitic diatribes that excluded her country from the international community; that he would help erase the memory of the terrible repression that followed the 2009 elections.

At that time, Hamideh chanted in the streets. She wore a green headscarf, the color of the reform candidates. But today, more than four years after this brief period of freedom, the green "sedition" color is forbidden. Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the 2009 reform candidates, are still under house arrest. And in the cafés in the north of the city where artists and writers gather, people generally try to change the subject when a foreign journalist asks about politics.

Hamideh has stopped believing that the Iranian political system, which mixes religion and politics in an incestuous confusion — what the Iranians call the "Wilayat al Faqih" — can reform itself from within. Moving away, she whispers, "The reformers followed the conservatives, but nothing ever changes in this regime. If Rouhani doesn't succeed in obtaining a nuclear agreement and in lifting these sanctions that are suffocating us, I'll leave Iran. I'm sure about that."

A hundred kilometers from Tehran, in the religious city of Qom, at least 1,000 women in multicolor chadors are heading towards the mausoleum of Imam Reza's sister, Fatima Masumeh. Here, visitors don't question the religious nature of the regime. It's quite the opposite. Female supervisors equipped with fluorescent plastic feather dusters guide the compact crowd that presses against the shrine.

To bring herself luck, Zahra, a 23-year-old biology student, rubs her hands, clothes and even her handbag against the small mirrors and gemstones that cover the tomb. There are tales of the many miracles that happened here: sick people who were cured, wishes fulfilled. The student came to ask the saint to put an end to these sanctions that have weakened the Iranian economy and prevented her, she says, from finding an apartment and getting married. Using one of the regime's phrases, she adds, "We are for Iran's imprescriptible right to nuclear technology, but the pointless power struggle in which we are constantly stuck with the West needs to stop!"

Economic suffocation

The reformers want to believe in the success of the nuclear talks. At the headquarters of the Kargozaran party, which is close to former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, several newspapers supporting President Rouhani are being reviewed. One of them, Mardom-e-Emrooz, has just been indefinitely shut down by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. A few weeks ago, it dared to print a photo of George Clooney, quoting him as saying "Je suis Charlie" during the Golden Globes awards.

Rouhani has said he favors greater press freedom, but in the face of conservatives who control the parliament, the justice department and several ministries, he hasn't been able to do much. Mardom-e-Emrooz is the fourth newspaper to be banned since Rouhani was elected president.

Saeed Leylaz, an influential economist who spent several months in prison after the 2009 uprising, is preparing an editorial for one of the magazines, whose cover depicts Rouhani surrounded by several dozen Ahmadinejads. "Our oil revenues decreased by 50% this year," the analyst explains. "And civil servant wages have gone down by 35%. Last year, by reestablishing the health system destroyed by Ahmadinejad, Rouhani managed to compensate for a small part of this decrease. But he won't be able to do it this year. This is why the nuclear agreement is urgent to avoid another economic asphyxiation. If they fail, the regime will have to close off the country and will become another North Korea to survive."

In the office next door, reformer Gholamhossein Karbaschi, former Tehran mayor from 1988 to 1998, makes the same analysis. He believes that only Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the country's real strongman who supervises the negotiations, can approve of President Rouhani's strategy, even if he remains cautious about the tactic. "He won't let the Iranian conservatives make the agreement fail," the former mayor notes with a disconcerting optimism. Because you need only to look at the representatives of the progressive forces in the country to see they are not riding high.

"The solution will come from the East"

Around Khamenei, the camp of hardliners who are opposed to any kind of concession on the nuclear program is powerful. There are the Guardians of the Revolution, the armed branch of the regime, who, with their economic empire, know how to make the most of the sanctions. There are also the judiciary and repressive systems, and finally the Majles, the predominantly conservative Iranian Parliament.

Hossein Shariatmadari, head of the daily Kayhan, a very active representative of this side, is close to the Supreme Leader's circles. His eloquence differs from the cautious remarks of the reformists. "These talks will never lead to anything," he says. "The nuclear issue is a pretext for the international community to be able to impose sanctions on Iran. It fears the success of our revolution, which is now exporting to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Yemen."

The man who follows the principles of the Islamic revolution has a harsh judgment towards President Rouhani, who made the mistake of "putting all his eggs in the negotiations basket."

It's an opinion shared by Laleh Eftekhari, one of Iran's few female parliament members. Wrapped in a long black chador, she came to deliver a speech during a conference on female company managers. She vehemently praises what she calls "the resistance economy," a phrase from the regime describing how housewives save money to reduce the impact of the sanctions, which she predicts "could continue for a long time."

Eventually, though, there will be a way out, she expects. "The solution will come from the East: China and Russia can easily replace the West for our commercial exchanges," Eftekhari says.

During this period, which could be a turning point in the country's history, the ill and old Supreme Leader is constantly examining these questions. Should they sign an agreement with the West and give the Iranian economy a bit of breathing space? Run the risk of reinforcing President Rouhani and the reformers, who could win the parliament in the next elections? Most importantly, is the Iranian regime, whose identity has been built on its opposition to the U.S., strong enough to make a pact with the Great Satan?

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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