* President Rouhani fails to deliver promises on democracy,
* Nuclear deal leaves Rouhani less scope on domestic agenda
* Deal seen likely to cement Khamenei's grip on power
By Parisa Hafezi
ANKARA, Jan 21 Reformists who supported the
election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last year fear his
focus on improving relations with the West will prevent him from
pushing for greater political and cultural freedoms at home.
His foreign efforts began to bear fruit on Monday with the
implementation of a deal to curb Iran's nuclear programme in
exchange for some relief from international
sanctions, but it came in the teeth of opposition
from hardliners in Tehran, the conservative allies of Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Some say that by securing Khamenei's consent to the nuclear
deal, Rouhani has depleted his political capital with the man
who has the final say on all state matters, leaving nothing for
"It is a tactical flexibility. Khamenei has given Rouhani a
free hand only on the nuclear issue, but not beyond that," said
a former senior official on condition of anonymity.
"Criticism of the deal by hardliners was part of Khamenei's
strategy, aimed at reminding Rouhani who was the boss and that
he needed Khamenei's support to overcome the resistance."
Khamenei has been adept at ensuring that no group, even the
conservatives, gains enough power to challenge his authority, so
Rouhani's diplomatic triumph is likely to put him on a shorter
leash on internal reforms and improvements in human rights.
These are "two fields in which nothing has changed", one
gloomy pro-reform politician said.
Although Rouhani announced the release of 12 prominent
political prisoners before he addressed the United Nations
General Assembly in September, rights activists say there has
been little else to cheer since he took office in August.
Reformist presidential candidates Mirhossein Mousavi and
Mehdi Karroubi, whose defeat in 2009 sparked mass protests
against what they said were rigged elections, remain under
effective house arrest. They have never been charged.
In November, Reporters Without Borders said 10 reformist
journalists and bloggers had been detained since June, while
another 10 were given jail terms totalling 72 years. The
authorities have closed or suspended publication of at least
three newspapers in the same period.
"Rouhani should also speak out publicly against serious
violations by security and intelligence forces, and act on
campaign promises to ease controls on freedom of information,
including heavy censorship," Middle East director at Human
Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a report on Tuesday.
His promises to loosen internet restrictions have not been
met. Access to social media remains officially blocked, though
Rouhani and Khamenei have their own Twitter accounts.
Rouhani has argued for patience and moderation in seeking
domestic change, and focuses instead on the flagging economy,
which will benefit from the easing of sanctions.
That will also play well with the lower-income groups that
form the base of Khamenei's support.
Though he commands the army and can count on the loyalty of
the elite Revolutionary Guards and the Basij religious militia,
which crushed mass protests in 2009, Khamenei fears economic
problems could weaken his position.
"The state of the economy is considered a crucial factor for
Khamenei. That is why he backed Rouhani's nuclear policy," said
a relative of Khamenei who asked not to be named.
But Khamenei also continued to give speeches larded with
denunciations of "enemies" and "the Great Satan", words aimed at
reassuring hardliners for whom anti-U.S. sentiment has always
been central to Iran's Islamic revolution.
Paradoxically, engagement with the international community,
which will improve Iranian people's lives, is likely to cement
the hardliners' grip on power.
Rouhani, who has been part of the establishment for decades,
has said he wants to bring change after winning a landslide
election in June on a progressive platform, but history gives
He is not the first president with a reform agenda to serve
under Khamenei, who took over as leader in 1989 from Ayatollah
When Mohammed Khatami was in power from 1997 to 2005,
Khamenei initially allowed a relaxation of Iran's strict
regulation of social and political freedom, but eventually saw
demands for change as a threat.
"The supreme leader is likely to have little patience for
adventurist behaviour by Rouhani," said Meir Javedanfar,
politics lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya.
Little is known about the details of regular weekly meetings
between Rouhani and Khamenei, but Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran
expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said
Rouhani's own history suggests there is little reason to suspect
he has the stomach to push Khamenei.
"Throughout Rouhani's entire political career, prior to
becoming president, whenever there was an opportunity to stand
for civil liberties and popular will, he has always sided with
the governmental repression," said Sadjadpour.
Rouhani will also know that seeking detente with the West
has only just begun and will require the continuing support of
Khamenei if it is to proceed further.
"In terms of foreign policy the current situation is likely
to call for more flexibility, meaning more room for manoeuvre
for Rouhani. In terms of domestic policy, cohesion and
consolidation is needed, and this will mean less room for
manoeuvre," said Javedanfar.
That will mean endless frustration for those who hoped for
"I don't know much about politics, but I voted for Rouhani
to have more freedom. But I only hear empty words," said
university student Azin Ghayumi. "My father says Iran's image in
the world has improved, but why should I care, when I am not
connected to the world?"
It has also changed the travel plans of dissident exiles who
thought of returning under Rouhani.
The hope of change is vanishing among the opposition abroad,
said one, and more success in foreign policy means more pressure
inside the country.
Ebrahim Nabavi, a twice-jailed writer and satirist, and
Nazak Afshar, who left after being arrested in the 2009
protests, told Reuters last year they planned to return, but
they remain overseas.
Ziba, who used to work for a pro-reform newspaper before
fleeing Iran in 2007 after she was detained briefly over
articles she wrote, has also abandoned her plans. She asked not
to give her surname.
"I was so happy for Rouhani's victory. I told my husband
that we should return home, but we had to wait for a few months
because of my university term," she said.
"And I am happy that we did not go back. I hear from my
former colleagues that the situation has not improved, and
people like me can be put in jail upon their arrival at the
airport," she said.
"Rouhani is just a front. The main man is Khamenei, and he
has not changed. He does not believe in reforms," said the first
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Angus Mcdowall and Will