Rouhani’s moment of truth
Ed Joseph, having asked some questions Tuesday, answers today:
So now the true cause of the Iran protests emerges: an unprecedented release, possibly by President Rouhani himself and possibly due to new regulations, of secret parts of the Iranian budget revealing expenditures for pet hard-line projects like the country’s religious institutes. This much more plausibly explains the intense anger of the protesters than vague, ‘disappointed expectations.’ Here’s how one protester recorded his reaction to the budget: “It made me angry,” said Mehdi, 33, from Izeh, a town in Iran’s poor Khuzestan Province, who asked that his family name not be used out of fear of retaliation. “There were all these religious organs that received high budgets, while we struggle with constant unemployment.”
Unfortunately for Rouhani, public anger appears equally distributed at him and the hard-liners. A popular chant making the rounds is, ‘Reformers, Hardliners, the game is now over!’ So, even if the protests eventually fizzle out, some damage is likely permanent: the end of the dominant paradigm of an Iran caught in a struggle between ‘reformers’ (Rouhani, Zarif and their associates) and ‘hardliners’ (Khamenei, the religious establishment, the IRGC and their associates and henchmen.) It certainly appears as if Iranians from across the country, even from rural areas thought to be bastions of support for the regime, discern little difference between the two erstwhile factions — indeed, see them as co-conspirators in a corrupt governing enterprise that impoverishes the people.
This means that it’s now Rouhani’s moment of truth: either stand up and distinguish himself from the hardliners, or die a death of irrelevance. Yes, Rouhani would risk the wrath of those hard-liners, but now is the time to incur that risk, gambling that he can get the public on his side at this dramatic moment.
Here’s an imperfect historical precedent. In 1968, widespread student protests rocked Communist, dictatorial Yugoslavia. The usual police response failed to subdue the protesters. Tito, rather than intensify the crack down on the students, watched for a bit and then sided with them. “The students are right,” he famously said. This took the wind out of the protests. Some time later, Tito jailed the instigators or otherwise banned them from the Communist party, a course of action that Rouhani need not follow. True, Tito was ‘supreme leader’ and Rouhani is not. But given the stakes for Rouhani — and for his country — perhaps this could be inspiration. What does he have to lose except his tattered reputation?
If Rouhani fails to find his patriotic mettle, then what replaces our guiding paradigm for understanding Iran? After all, it was the hope for evolutionary change guided by reformers like Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif that undergirds the ten-year time limitation on enrichment technology development in the Iran nuclear deal. The idea was that the lifting of sanctions and improvement of the economy under the deal would create space for Rouhani, Zarif and others to wean Iran away from isolation and regional destablization, and ultimately, from the need to pursue nuclear weapons. Up to now, the need to ‘support the reformers’ has restrained US policy on Iran.
This month is the deadline for Congress to act on President Trump’s October decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA) How will the protests influence how Republicans approach the issue? Predictably, Trump and Pence are already seizing the opportunity to impugn the Obama Administration, which stayed quiet, out of caution, during the widespread 2009 protests. Will Republicans take their anti-Obama obsession to the next level, and imperil the JCPOA itself? Another question is how the protests will color the views of Democrats and Europeans who don’t want to kill the nuclear deal, but now have a weaker basis to sustain belief in it. Without the Rouhani moderate vs. Khamenei paradigm, the core arguments left are tactical and tentative: ‘if we kill the deal, then we make the protests about us’ and ‘the deal still beats the alternative.’ That could embolden the JCPOA’s opponents and wreck Rouhani’s most important achievement.