TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — It just keeps getting worse for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
The relatively moderate cleric’s signature achievement, the nuclear deal with world powers, may fall apart later this week if President Donald Trump decides to pull America from the accord. Iran’s economy, which Rouhani promised the deal would bolster, continues to weaken. Meanwhile, Rouhani himself acknowledged his own inability to stop a court’s ban of a popular messaging app that helped fuel nationwide protests at the start of the year.
All the problems suggest Iran’s domestic politics may swing back toward hard-liners and further weaken the once-popular president. Some hard-liners have even suggested the country needs a military dictatorship.
If that swing happens, it threatens any further rapprochement with the West at a time with Washington appears more on a course toward confrontation. The trends are a sharp contrast from hopes among supporters of the nuclear deal on both sides that the accord would a first step toward greater dialogue.
“What we are witnessing in the society is an expression of regret,” said Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran University political science professor. “If we continue this decline, with no doubt the next parliament will be in the hands of the conservative hard-line camp and in the next presidential election their candidate will be the winner.”
It’s a surprising turn for the 69-year-old Rouhani. Iranians joyfully took to the streets to celebrate him and the 2015 nuclear deal. He won re-election in a May 2017 landslide in which he garnered even more votes than in his first campaign, even as Trump was threatening the deal.
But trouble brewed for Rouhani just under the surface.
Reformists — those who want wholesale change to the Islamic Republic’s theocratic government — long have been suspicious of Rouhani, who is very much a member of that system. The hard-line clerics who dominate the judiciary along with powerful forces like the Revolutionary Guard also have frustrated Rouhani’s plans. He has been unable, for example, to carry out his promises to free political leaders from Iran’s 2009 Green Movement, who still remain under house arrest today.
The major concern, however, would prove to be Iran’s economy. Many criticize Rouhani’s administration for failing to control rocketing prices for staples like meat, chicken and rice. Everything from taxi rides to haircuts are now more expensive. The Iranian rial has plummeted to 70,000 to the dollar in the black market, compared to an official rate of 42,000.
“When the deal was signed some years ago, I thought the situation will be better but it did not happen,” said Behrouzi Molaei, a 42-year-old taxi driver. “After the death of the deal, I do not know how Rouhani can fix these ever-increasing problems.”
Yadollah Kazemi, a 54-year-old worker at a plastics factory, agreed.
“Rouhani just comes to the podium and repeats some figures showing the situation is good. It has no meaning for me who has not gotten a salary for months,” Kazemi said. “Rouhani cannot answer our demands, just like I can’t for my three children and my wife.”
Uncertainty over the nuclear deal only worsens those economic woes.
“Whenever you raise the level of uncertainty it has a negative impact on the economy,” said Jihad Azour, the International Monetary Fund’s Mideast and Central Asia department director.
Iran’s economic problems gave birth to nationwide protests in December and January. The demonstrations saw at least 25 people killed and, reportedly, nearly 5,000 arrested. A massive deployment of police and volunteers linked to the hard-line Revolutionary Guard staunched the unrest, but labor strikes and local issues still draw protesters at the local level.
During the protests, the government temporarily shut down the popular Telegram messaging app, which an estimated 40 million Iranians use. Last week, Iran’s judiciary ordered all internet service providers to permanently halt access to the app, drawing popular anger.
Rouhani acknowledged his own inability to restore the service, suggesting in an Instagram post those “at the highest level” in the country shut off access.
That immediately drew anger as well, even from Ali Motahari, a prominent lawmaker and supporter of Rouhani.
“The president should have given the judiciary a constitutional warning over Telegram,” Motahari said Sunday. “Allusive speaking is a sign of weakness. People expect clearness.”
Some of the anger Rouhani faces could be attributed to the disappointment voters have in any president’s second term, whether in Iran or elsewhere. In the 2000s, unhappiness with reformist President Mohammad Khatami, also a cleric who sought warm ties with the West, opened the door to the hard-line policies of his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But analysts note Khatami at least kept Iran’s economy under control and the U.S. in check as America conducted wars in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq.
Perhaps more concerning to Rouhani and his allies are the growing calls for a “military man” to take over in Iran. While former soldiers and security force members have circled Iran’s politics, a military strongman has never emerged to run Iran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“I believe if a military man becomes president, he definitely will be able to salvage the country from its problems,” hard-line lawmaker and former Guard commander Mohammad Ali Pourmokhtar recently said.
With Iran’s next presidential election in 2021, the timing of the comments now have raised eyebrows.
“What is happening in the world will happen in Iran, too. People desire dictatorship,” said Ebrahim Fayyaz, a political scientist at Tehran’s conservative Imam Sadegh University. “People are tired of the current social order. There is no political power in the country. The continuation of the current situation will lead to the collapse and disintegration of the country.”
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.