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Is Iran’s Rouhani a lame duck president?

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FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a statement after a two day visit in Bern, Switzerland, July 3, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

Having staked everything on a now-crumbling nuclear deal, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has little to show for his five years in power and is seeing his support evaporate.

The fifth anniversary of Rouhani’s first inauguration fell on Friday, but with the economy in crisis and US sanctions set to return just four days later, there were no celebrations.

Rouhani was supposed to be the centrist who could heal Iran’s divisions and build a China-like development model in which economic growth would head off demands for major political reform.

But when the US walked out of the 2015 nuclear deal in May, undoing the centrepiece of Rouhani’s strategy, the “diplomatic sheikh” suddenly looked fatally exposed.

“The problem with Rouhani is that he had no plan B,” a journalist for Iran’s state television told AFP.

“In fact, attracting foreign investment was his Plan A, B, C and D. Now, he’s a lame duck president.”

– Missing billions –
Even when the nuclear deal was intact, it never worked quite as hoped.

Rouhani set a target of $50 billion in foreign investment for its first year, but only $3.4 billion showed up, according to the World Bank, with foreign firms and banks remaining wary of US penalties.

Moreover, little was done to tackle corruption and the toxic debt poisoning Iran’s banking system, or the huge jobless rate, particularly among young people.

The “Rouhani-meter”, created by a US-based tech group, found the president had achieved only 20 of 100 election pledges by his fifth anniversary, with a further 17 “in progress”.

His successes included reduced inflation and better internet, but all the unfulfilled promises had “caused disappointment and alienated many supporters,” the report concluded.

For the first time, parliament has summoned Rouhani to appear within the next month to explain his plan for rescuing the economy.

“He has friends in the cabinet, but nowhere else,” said Mohammad Reza Behzadian, former head of the Tehran chamber of commerce.

– Rights go wrong –
For many progressive Iranians, it is Rouhani’s civil rights record that has most exposed his weakness.

His failure to win the release of political prisoners and prevent the blocking of Iran’s most popular messaging app, Telegram, went directly against promises made during his re-election campaign last year.

“Every president has made the same promises to create hope but once elected they don’t do anything.

If (the election) happened again, I wouldn’t vote for Rouhani, I wouldn’t vote for anyone,” said Arash, a 21-year-old photographer in Tehran, reflecting a typical view among the young.

For many, it mirrors the second term of Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president from 1997 to 2005 who tried and failed to weaken the grip of unelected hardline institutions, leaving many progressives deeply disillusioned.

Some question whether Rouhani was even sincere in his promises.

“He has chosen not to pick fights and stand up when he could have,” a Western diplomat said.

“He could have used his office to push hard on issues such as Telegram, but didn’t. He limply spoke in favour of the hijab protests… he limply supported environmental activists when they were arrested.

But none of it has looked like Khatami, who was willing to stand up and go crashing down in flames.”

– Conservative opposition –
Meanwhile, Rouhani was already unpopular with conservatives who accused him of ignoring the poor and selling out to the West.

In the holy city of Mashhad on Friday, clerics accused the president of surrounding himself with those who “don’t care about people’s problems”, who have “two passports and send their families abroad”.

But despite all the opposition, analysts say Rouhani is unlikely to be impeached given the lack of an obvious replacement.

Many in the conservative establishment have rallied to his side, fearing broader unrest.

Even the ultra-conservative Kayhan newspaper, a relentless Rouhani critic, said this month: “We must put to one side our differences because, at present the national interest and the survival of the nation are at stake.”

Everyone knows Rouhani has “a massive popularity problem”, said Adnan Tabatabai, Iran analyst for the CARPO think tank in Germany.

To survive his last three years in office, he is he is already working on his appeal towards more conservative forces.

“He will likely adjust his foreign policy. He can no longer afford to maintain his conciliatory approach to the US… though he must also keep an eye on Europe to salvage what’s left of the JCPOA (nuclear deal),” said Tabatabai.

“I don’t think the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) wants him to fail… but he needs to introduce a hell of a lot of economic measures to bring back people’s support.”


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