GENEVA (Reuters) - Growing U.S. pressure on Iran has weakened pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani and made his hardline rivals more assertive at home and abroad, recent developments show.
When he succeeded firebrand leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013, Rouhani was seen as an establishment figure who would do little to end Iran’s long standoff with the West. Two years later, his administration signed the nuclear deal with six world powers that spurred hopes for wider political change.
Rouhani’s authority is now waning: his brother, a key adviser on the 2015 deal, has been sentenced to jail on unspecified corruption charges, a hardline rival heads the judiciary and his government is under fire for responding too softly to U.S. President Donald Trump’s sanctions squeeze.
Trump has said lifting sanctions in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program did not stop Tehran meddling in neighboring states or developing ballistic missile capabilities and Rouhani’s outreach to the West was a fig leaf.
Yet the U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal a year ago and subsequent attempts to end Iran’s oil exports have led to a sharp increase in regional tension: the U.S. military said on Tuesday it was braced for “possibly imminent threats to U.S. forces” from Iran-backed forces in neighboring Iraq.
Rouhani has urged opposing factions to work together and noted limits on his power in a country where an elected government operates under clerical rule and alongside powerful security forces and an influential judiciary.
“How much authority the government has in the areas that are being questioned must be examined,” the presidency’s website quoted Rouhani as saying on Saturday, an apparent attempt to fend off public anger at plummeting living standards.
Ebrahim Raisi, who became head of the judiciary in March and is a contender to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, retorted that all branches of government had sufficient authority to carry out their duties.
Local media interpreted the statement as a direct rebuke from Raisi, who ran against Rouhani in the 2017 presidential election.
On May 4, Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereydoun was sentenced to prison. The judiciary has not given details of the charges against him and attempts by Reuters to seek comment were unsuccessful. The judiciary has said it has no political motivation for the cases it tries.
Rouhani has two years until his term ends, but if he is seen by Iranians as responsible for their problems, his successor is more likely to take a hard line with the West, some analysts say.
“[Hardliners] couldn’t ask for a better ally than the Trump administration,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the Crisis Group.
When Rouhani announced last week that Iran would roll back some of its commitments under the international nuclear deal a year after Trump withdrew, the hardline daily Kayhan newspaper called the move “late and minimal”.
“If Mr. Rouhani’s government had reacted reciprocally from the beginning to the broken promises of America and Europe, they (the Americans and Europeans) would not have reached this level of offensiveness and arrogance,” an article in the newspaper said on Thursday.
Restrictions on social media, championed by hardline officials and clerics, are putting further political pressure on Rouhani, who promised in his 2017 and 2013 election campaigns to lift such curbs.
Telegram, a messaging app popular in Iran, was banned last year. Twitter is also banned and hardliners have set their sights on Instagram, used by some 24 million Iranians.
In his comments on Saturday, Rouhani said the government does not have full authority over the cyberspace, underlining the limits to his powers.
He and other officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have active Twitter accounts despite the ban.
Last month, Instagram shut down several accounts under the names of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, the country’s most powerful military and economic force, after Washington declared the Guards a foreign terrorist organization.
Some lawmakers are now seeking a complete ban on Instagram, one of the few social media platforms yet to be blocked.
Javad Javidnia, the deputy in charge of cyberspace affairs at the prosecutor general’s office in Tehran, said last month Instagram would be blocked unless the government found an effective way to monitor its content, Fars news agency said.
Telecoms Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi told Reuters in an interview last month that he used social media actively, including Twitter, and wanted fewer restrictions. But he said filtering usually takes place with a judicial decree.
“Ayatollah Raisi has recently started his work in this area and we will have to see what his view will be,” he said.
The Guards have used authorities response to heavy flooding in March to criticize the government and promote their effectiveness.
A video of the head of the Guards’ ground forces lambasting the government after visiting a flood-stricken area in western Iran in early April was widely circulated on social media.
“There are a lot of problems. There is no management. No government official has the courage to go there,” Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour said in the video. “It’s horrible.”
Hardline news sites posted pictures of members of the Guards helping remote villages, with their uniforms covered in mud.
Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, a Rouhani ally who has tried to attract investment, has been accused by hardline politicians of giving away the nation’s wealth and criticized for not doing more to bypass sanctions.
The Guards have developed expertise in bypassing sanctions through years of experience and are now eyeing opportunities arising from the new U.S. economic restrictions.
Khatam al Anbia, the Guards’ huge engineering and construction arm controls over 800 affiliated companies worth billions of dollars. Its head, Saeed Mohammad, said at an oil and gas exhibition in Tehran on May 2 that the firm has the ability to develop a phase of South Pars, the world’s largest gas field, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
“Our goal is to fill the empty spot left by foreign companies,” he said.
Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharefedin in London and the Dubai newsroom; editing by Philippa Fletcher