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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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