Iran's President Takes Aim At Hardliners But Move Could Backfire

Jan 9, 2018
Originally published on January 9, 2018 8:10 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president of Iran all but took the side of his country's protesters. Hassan Rouhani spoke after days of demonstrations and essentially told his cabinet that the ruling class in Iran is out of touch, that Internet censorship is a problem, that people want more freedom, that they're not just protesting about the economy. It was an especially frank statement in a country where people often speak in euphemisms and metaphors and code if they talk politics at all. NPR's Peter Kenyon has covered Iran for years. He's on the line. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How significant are Rouhani's comments?

KENYON: They're important. It's not often you hear an Iranian president say one cannot force one's lifestyle on the future generations or ask whether you can buy freedom with some economic improvements while people stay cut off from the Internet or face other restrictions. I mean, it's unusually plain and direct speaking by the standards of Iranian political discourse, certainly, but, making a tough speech is one thing, taking tough action is, of course, another.

INSKEEP: Well, let's try to figure out what's going on here. We should remember, I guess, that there are different factions in Iran's government. Some are more moderate, or reformist, as they say. Some are much more conservative or hard-liner. And it sounds with remarks like that like Rouhani is aligning himself with the reform people and taking aim at the more conservative factions. Is that really what's happening?

KENYON: Certainly the latter, taking aim at hard-liners. Yes. They've been constantly attacking him since his re-election last May. They've been frustrating his efforts to revive the economy to some extent. And hard-liners, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his very latest remarks, continue to blame all this unrest on the U.S. and Britain, on outside agitators. But also what Rouhani was doing with these remarks was refocusing anger away from himself. He was the target, remember, of some of these protests, as well as hard-liners, and now he's saying, no, let's look at the other side, the conservatives.

These protests in essence took on the entire theocratic system, and that's not what Rouhani's about. He's not about changing that. But this is him trying to seize the high ground. I asked Iran analyst Ali Vaez at the International Crisis Group. He says Rouhani really needs to pivot from being a target to being a champion of reforms even though he's not a radical reformer himself. Here's how he put it.

ALI VAEZ: What he needs to do is to submit to the parliament a package of major reforms including constitutional amendments that would empower the elected institutions and secure the supreme leader's consent for enforcing these reforms - because without such bold measures, the country would simply be buying time until the next uprising.

INSKEEP: OK. I'm just thinking through what we've heard and remembering that axiom that one of the jobs of a politician is to figure out the direction the crowd is already going and get in front of them if at all possible so you look like a leader, I guess. That might be what you could say Rouhani is doing, but is there a risk to him in pressuring the more conservative parts of the government?

KENYON: Absolutely. As we've been pointing out, Iran's president doesn't really control all the levers of power in his country. Hard-line political opponents do control many of them. Some think these protests may have started with encouragement from hard-liners who just wanted to make Rouhani look bad and they simply got out of control. And now if he does take this path of getting out in front of big reforms and the supreme leader doesn't back him up then you could see a hard-line backlash that could weaken him for the rest of his second term. At the moment he remains broadly popular, especially in the big cities, and he may be able to use this crisis as some kind of opportunity.

INSKEEP: Broadly popular, but the protests are showing, as Rouhani himself pointed out, people want more freedoms. They want some change. How much time does he have to turn things around?

KENYON: Not nearly as much as he would like. I mean, none of the even limited economic reforms he's been seeking so far provide instant relief to ordinary Iranians. And in the meantime, his move to reduce cash payments and subsidies will effect the poor rather instantly. Rouhani has got to walk a very difficult path.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.