Shifting Social and Political Landscape in Iran As Trump Ramps up Pressure

Week of August 13, 2018 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

  • Iran’s political elites have rejected immediate talks, though some have signaled flexibility if the U.S. returns to the nuclear deal
  • Hardliners scapegoat Rouhani amid measured support from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei
  • U.S. pressure has spurred increased calls for unity among  parts of the ruling elite
  • Continued protests highlight depth of generational divide, institutional incapacities 
  • Reformist leaders and Green Movement leaders under house arrest issue calls for major change but condemn foreign intervention

Amid continued sporadic protests and reinstated U.S. sanctions, the political and social landscape inside Iran is in a state of flux. The depreciation of the Rial and rising inflation have fueled economic grievances and spurred intense debate over both domestic shortcomings and foreign threats. However, bitter jockeying between political factions has given way to a collective sense of needing to put aside differences for the sake of preserving stability and the ruling system. Senior officials have also united in rejecting Donald Trump’s offer for an unconditional meeting with President Rouhani but have differed on the nature and severity of their opposition to renewed U.S.-Iran negotiations.

Demonstrations

A new wave of protests that began in the city of Isfahan on July 31st spread to other parts of the country, including Tehran, Mashhad, Hamedan, Kazeroun, and Shiraz. Though small in scope, the protests lasted for days and underscored the failure of governmental institutions to address the economic and political grievances that have brought many Iranians to the streets since late December 2017. According to journalists and human rights activists, dozens of protesters were arrested across the country and one protestor, 26-year-old Reza Outadi, was killed on August 3rd in Karaj, north-west of Tehran. The Prosecutor General of Karaj has since stated that an investigation has been launched into the killing.

The protests and deteriorating economic situation have been used by Iran’s competing political factions to advance their contrasting agendas. President Rouhani has sought to push ahead with his 2017 presidential campaign promises of increased institutional transparency and economic liberalization, particularly with respect to the privatization of semi-public or Revolutionary Guards-operated industries. On the other hand, conservative rivals of Rouhani have held him responsible for the country’s economic woes, placing more blame on his management of the economy than U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, prominent reformists and Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi–who along with 2009 reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi continues to be under house arrest–have called for immediate and far-reaching reforms but have also condemned foreign intervention and urged unity between ruling elites and the general population.

Prominent sociologist Maghsoud Farasatkhah discussed the protests in a recent interview with the reformist Shargh newspaper. He opined: “We cannot lose sight of the fact that these protests are not representative of the voice of all the people in Iranian society, they aren’t even representative of critics and dissidents in society, but they are nonetheless an important voice and have the right to be heard and must be heard.” Farasatkhah further stated: “The youth have played an important role in these protests .. we are talking about a generation that is up to date in the world on communication and information and will, despite any limitations, connect to the world, and familiarize themselves with different issues.”

“Resistance” Economy vs. Rouhani Calls for Breaking Up IRGC Economic Power

A recent letter by Iran’s powerful Assembly of Experts—charged with monitoring and appointing the Supreme Leader—laid much of the blame for Iran’s economic downturn on Rouhani. “What has caused the current unacceptable economic conditions is weak economic management and non-belief in the ‘resistance economy’ and infiltration by the enemy and corruption … and having an economic pivot to foreigners,” the letter stated. “It is expected that the President, without hesitation, changes in a major way his cabinet and senior economic managers.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei also entered the fray in a recent speech in which he censured the Rouhani administration’s handling of the economy. “Most economic experts and many officials say that the cause all of these problems are not sanctions but are due to internal problems and the method of management and implementing policies,” Ayatollah Khamenei stated. “I won’t say that sanctions have no effect, but most of our recent economic problems are related to actions than have been taken and, if better, more prudent, and stronger actions are taken, the sanctions will not have much of an effect and we can stand against them.”

However, Ayatollah Khamenei also voiced support for President Rouhani in the face of calls for his resignation by some conservatives, declaring: “Those who say the administration must be impeached are playing a role in the enemy’s plan … The government must stay in power and with strength accomplish its responsibilities to alleviate problems.”

Ayatollah Khamenei also lauded a letter by 38 economists friendly to the Rouhani administration outlining prescriptions for addressing Iran’s economic crises. Notably, the economists’ letter stated that Iran’s current downturn was partly due to “figures not responsible for foreign policy entering foreign policy arena” and called for “clear and wise positions based on positive diplomatic engagement to be officially announced regarding foreign policy,” increased privatization, and the end of military (i.e. Revolutionary Guards) involvement in the economy. The economists’ call for non-foreign ministry officials refraining from commenting on foreign policy was likely a reference to comments by the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, who personally penned a letter to Trump and vociferously rejected his offer of unconditional talks with Rouhani.

Condemnations of Leaders “Looking to the West”

The return of U.S. sanctions has also spurred renewed talk of Iran’s foreign policy orientation and whether it can rely on the West or should pivot decisively towards rising powers such as Russia and China. The conservatives, known as “principlists,” have sought to downplay the effect of economic sanctions largely because of their fundamental opposition to detente with the United States and belief that Iran must overcome its problems by relying on domestic resources. The principlist school of thought in Iran is rigidly attached to the ideological principles of the Islamic revolution and sees an unavoidable clash between an independent Iran and the United States.

A recent editorial in the principlist Kayhan criticized officials that “look to the West” to solve the country’s economic problems. “The manager who isn’t able to make effort to solve problems gives the wrong address, and says we have problems because there are sanctions and the path we must take is negotiations and deals with America,” the editorial stated. Another recent Kayhan editorial called for Iran to form deeper ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) countries, stating: “Countries in the SCO have 50 percent of the global population and a third of the global production of goods and services. The future of the global economy is in the east … the sooner Iran realizes that the West won’t secure its interests, it will have a better future.”

Negotiations with the U.S.

Ayatollah Khamenei also ruled out negotiations with the Trump White House, stating that the administration was ” playing a worn-out tactic that is worthless politically … one of them says without condition [we will meet], the other lays out the conditions.” He went on: “Even if the impossible occurred and we negotiated with the Americans, we definitely won’t negotiate with the current administration.” However, he also added a caveat:  “We can only enter the dangerous game of negotiations with the U.S. when we feel we’ve reached a point of economic, political, & cultural authority and U.S. pressures and blackmail don’t affect us—but for now negotiations will definitely be to our detriment and are forbidden.”

President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have in recent interviews stressed that Iran was not the side that left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) and that Iran is not intransigent regarding pursuing diplomatic compromise. “We negotiated on every word on JCPOA and Trump with one signature voided it. And now he comes and talks of negotiations? This just a propaganda ploy,” Zarif proclaimed in an August 6th press conference.

In an August 15th meeting with administration officials, Rouhani blamed Trump for shuttering the diplomatic channels that had formed between the two countries under the Obama administration and called for Trump to first rebuild these connections before speaking of meeting. “The U.S. itself has acted in such a way that has destroyed the circumstances required for negotiations. It has burned its bridges,” Rouhani proclaimed. “Now, the U.S. is standing on the other side … If it is honest, it should fix that bridge again.”

 



Below please find a summary of key developments in Iran:

Fatemeh Karroubi, wife of Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi, recently met with former President Mohammad Khatami and delivered a message from the opposition leader under house arrest.

  • “Hojatoleslam Karroubi has for the entirety of his detention and more than his own fate has thought about the people, the country, and is worried about the condition of the people and the revolution and Iran being hurt by external and internal dangers.”
  • “Hojatoleslam Karroubi while condemning the pressures against the Rouhani administration, criticizes the shortcomings that we witness in government officials and asks that tangible, coherent, and immediate steps be taken to alleviate current problems and eliminate the dangers that face our dear Iran.”
  • “Hojatoleslam Karroubi asks all Iranians who care for the revolution and the country to put aside their differences, and especially the different reformist currents, to show that they understand the pain of the people and country through coordination and solidarity.”

Ayatollah Khamenei in a major speech on August 13 ruled out negotiations with the Trump administration and defended the Rouhani administration against calls for his resignation.

  • Khamenei on the nuclear negotiations leading to the JCPOA: “I pushed strongly for hard positions. However, the red lines I outlined were not met.”
  • On negotiations with the U.S.: “We can only enter the dangerous game of negotiations with the United States when we feel we’ve reached a point of economic, political, & cultural authority & U.S. pressures and blackmail don’t affect us—but for now negotiations will definitely be to our detriment and are forbidden.”
  • “We will not negotiate with Americans for reasons based on precise arguments, our past experience, and the wide-ranging costs of negotiations with a regime that is untrustworthy and aggressive, and in the light of unity between the people and officials, we will easily pass through this period.”
  • On effect of U.S. sanctions: “Most economic experts and many officials that the cause of all these problems are not sanctions but are due to internal problems and the method of management and implementing policies.”
  • “I won’t say that sanctions have no effect, but most of our recent economic problems are related to actions taken and if better, more prudent, and stronger actions were taken, the sanctions will not have much of an effect and we can stand against them.”
  • Khamenei voiced his support for a letter from 38 economists to Rouhani outlining recommendations for alleviating Iran’s current economic crisis. The economists are allied to Rouhani: “Recently some economic specialists, who are not against the [Rouhani] administration and some are renowned, wrote a caring letter to the respected president and on top of reviewing the structural and current economic problems, offered solutions, of which most of these were correct.”
  • The letter by the economists stated that Iran’s current currency crisis is rooted in “public distrust”, the “instability in positions that have been taken domestically to confront increasing foreign tensions”, and “the figures not responsible for foreign policy entering foreign policy arena.” They called for “clear and wise positions based on positive engagement to be officially announced on foreign policy.” They called for increased privatization and the removal of any military involvement in the economy, among numerous other measures. Link.  
  • Called for aggressive actions against corruption, supported letter of head of judiciary.
  • On negotiations with the U.S.: “I stress there won’t be a war and we will not negotiate.”
  • “On this issue they are playing a worn-out tactic that is worthless politically, one of them says without condition [we will meet], the other lays out the conditions.”
  • “Given America’s formula for approach to negotiations, any government in the world that negotiates with them will have problems, unless they are totally aligned with the U.S., which even today is actually not the case as we see the current American government tries to force/bully the Europeans.”
  • “Even if the impossible occurred and we negotiated with the Americans, we definitely won’t negotiate with the current administration.”
  • “Negotiations with a bullying and demanding country like America is not a means to lower their hostility but it is a means of giving them tools with which they can more effectively commit hostility and reach their goals.”
  • “They are pursuing economic warfare to create discontent in the hopes this will turn into unrest and instability.

Iranian sociologist Maghsoud Farasatkhah on the protests in an interview with the reformist Shargh blames the government for failing to taking the steps necessary to alleviate grievances that cause protests. Stresses generational divide and structural inability to address problems:

  • “It’s not just the Rouhani administration and the executive branch that has responsibilities for these developments, but the entire government must take responsibility. Our entire social system and the prominent figures in our society must take responsibility and not just scapegoat the [Rouhani] administration.
  • “We cannot lose sight of the fact that these protests are not representative of the voice of all the people in Iranian society, they aren’t even representative of critics and dissidents in society, but they are nonetheless an important voice and have the right to be heard and must be heard.”
  • “At the present, there are many criticisms between the ruling elite. As long as there is not real reconciliation, there can’t be a minimum consensus on the problems in cities, the inequalities that exist, so they can reach an understanding of the poverty [that exists.]”
  • “The youth have played an important role in these protests .. we are talking about a generation that is up to date in the world on communication and information and will, despite any limitations, connect to the world, and familiarize themselves with different issues.”
  • “Our governmental institutions in many areas have not changed in accordance to the changes in society. These institutions are not even capable of seeing these changes. Some of the decisions that are taken for this society, have no meaning and are unacceptable by society.”
  • “They blame some issues on the executive branch, who in turn blames other branches. This is as the main issue is how people in society live … These voices have to be taken seriously and it’s necessary for [government-society] relations to change, such issues should not be reflexively viewed through a security lens.”
  • “If we had a strong civil society, there would be no need for these protests. Civil society is a calm space that in a peaceful and public way reflects on public issues and wisely engages in dialogue on these issues. When civil society is more aware, all pains are quickly heard and civil society can help the government to solve the problems by bringing psychological pressure.”

Iranian sociologist Saeed Madani in an interview with Shargh also emphasizes lack of opportunity for the youth:

  • “The phenomenon of unemployment among the youth and the educated [those with university degrees] has long afflicted the Iranian labor market and has expanded.”
  • “In the fall of 1393 (2014), unemployment was 10.5% and for the youth from ages 15 to 29 it was 21.8%. These numbers are far worse today given the economic recession.”
  • “Unfortunately there is no sign that the government has had the least bit of a clear and realistic understanding of the protests. If the voice of the protests were heard by officials, we should have witnessed serious changed in major policies. I have not seen the slightest change in policies affecting the economy, society, or culture.”

Donya Eqtesad piece arguing that many of the issues facing Iran today are due to the gradual weakening and undermining of the executive branch. It calls for more unity and less attacks on the executive branch/Rouhani administration:

  • “The current conditions are partly due to internal fights and foreign pressures, or to be more specific, the economic-psychological-security war of the United States against Iran.”
  • “The Iranian executive branch, which from 1360 to 1390 (2012) was the principal institution of the country after the Leadership, in that year became an ineffectual institution and even became a weight on the foot of other institutions.”
  • “The weakening of the executive branch … has two major implications that may be the biggest threats to national interests and security in all the years since the revolution. The first is the weakening of the political system speaking with one voice and an increase in contradictory comments by officials and non-officials.”
  • “The second is the message sent to society that nothing can be expected of the executive branch and public requests should be directed elsewhere. This means that the responsibility for shortcomings of the executive but that the whole system must be accountable. The small and sporadic protests of last winter and this past few weeks reflect this belief.”
  • “To escape the current situation, it is enough that, first senior officials believe that the system is stable, second, everyone rereads the constitution regarding what their areas of responsibility are and aren’t, and third, give message to society that the responsibilities of the executive branch now have the attention of all institutions, and they should remember that the biggest demonstration of stability is to have calm and respectful dialogue.”

Prominent sociologist Hamid-Reza Jaleipour lauds Rouhani’s TV address:

  • “In my opinion Rouhani’s comments were overall good and in the current time of tension spurred calmness domestically and projected strength abroad … Rouhani also left the door open to negotiations with honor with America.”
  • “The impact of this calculated was seen the next day. The same day Trump imposed the first waves of sanctions against the Iranian people, we saw that the cost of gold dropped by 12 percent and the Euro lost 7 percent of its value against the Rial.”
  • “On foreign policy Rouhani made the right points. He said we had negotiations with America. We negotiated and reached an agreement and now Trump has turned his back on America’s promise. So the ball is on Trump’s side.”
  • “At the same time Rouhani was aware that for the Congressional elections, Trump needs a picture with Rouhani. But Rouhani, without ruling out negotiations, has essentially pushed the issue of negotiations with Trump to after the U.S. elections.”

Former reformist president Mohammad Khatami gave a speech last week to former parliamentarians in which he highlighted the need for reforms and offered 15 suggestions to alleviate Iran’s current problems. Highlights from the speech:

  • “[Outside] regime-changers know that as long as reformism is alive there is no room for regime change. Internally there are also those who are set on avenging and eliminating reformists—they’re other side of same scissor.”
  • “The passivity of the [Rouhani] administration and the surprise reaction of reformists in the face of such propaganda is shocking.”
  • “creating chaos in the hope of removing the Islamic Republic will not solve country’s problems. Actions by foreign powers sound alarm bells regarding threat of breaking up (partitioning) Iran.”
  • “The system must be reformable. Hopelessness regarding the system’s ability to reform is a serious problem that would be irreversible.”
  • “As a citizen who cares about Iran and Islam, from the bottom of my heart I apologize for shortcomings and deficiencies that currently exist.”
  • Khatami then outlined 15 suggestions to alleviate current crises faced by Iran:
    1. Creating and strengthening unity among all the different political factions. Removing zero-sum mentalities.
    2. Unity among all forces committed to aims of Iran’s glory, progress, and safety and security of Iranian people. National dialogue.
    3. Changing state TV’s programming angle. State TV shouldn’t just be representative of one perspective in society.
    4. Creating political atmosphere that is open, safe, and free.
    5. Eliminating thinking that narrows specialists, scientists, and politicians to those who “are like us.”
    6. Ending house arrest of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
    7. Freeing all political prisoners and prisoners of conscious.
    8. Announcing public amnesty; giving trust to many specialist Iranians inside and outside the country to work for Iran’s progress.
    9. Removing unjust limitations; having elections that are open and free and centered on people’s aspirations and hope
    10. Ending extremism/radicalism; all factions have to works towards this.
    11. 3 branches of government must become more efficient and coordinate more.
    12. Hearing people’s grievances. We all need to hear these grievances and instead of preventing protests, we must work towards removing problems leading to protests.
    13. Accountability by Rouhani admin. Shortcomings cannot be blamed on political rivals, administration must prove its efficiency.
    14. Maintain people’s trust in parliament.
    15. Forming courts with juries selected from the ordinary people.

Sociologist Hamid Reza Jaleipour on Khatami’s speech, states that while reformists have lost votes as recent elections show, they still have most legitimacy among public in comparison with other opposition groups/”forces of change”:

  • “Khatami offered guidelines to escape the current crises, criticized the regime-changers, and did not attack the system but instead offered them a path. Khatami focused on ‘rebuilding public trust in public institutions” to escape the current crises.”
  • “It is said that people have moved past reformism and Khatami. This is true to an extent and reformists have lost votes … However, there are other issues to consider. For example, look at the situation of the ‘forces of change’ in the present time and compare them and see who is trustworthy: the Rajavists [MEK], the Shahis [Reza Pahlavi supporters], the Mesbahis [support of a fundamentalist cleric], the Shireen Ebadis, or the Khatamis. The situation for reformists in public opinion may not be good, but in comparison to other forces pushing for change, they have the most credibility.”
  • “Also, if Trump increases his threats, the positive but sleeping Iranian nationalism will be awoken and will increase participation in public life.”
  • “The regime changers slander every freedom-seeking person who has striven for change inside Iran. Their slanders have not only been aimed at Khatami or Mostafa Tajzadeh, but even Ebrahim Yazdi and Amir Entezami.”

Former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad releases video calling for Rouhani’s resignation and blaming the whole political system for the protests:

  • Ahmadinejad: “The people are totally discontent. They don’t accept the [Rouhani] administration. They don’t accept the other government institutions either.”
  • “The best way for Rouhani to gain approval is to no longer continue [as president].”
  • “The economy is on the verge of collapse. Public trust in the entire system is almost zero. Discontent has reached a peak. Poverty is widespread. Who is responsible for this? All officials. All three branches. More than anyone Rouhani.”
  • “Rouhani gave massive concession and got nothing” in his nuclear negotiations.
  • Threatens Rouhani: “For you to stay will be harmful both to the country and to you yourself.”

Raja News, far-right/hardline outlet issues a warning to the parliament: the start of new negotiations with the U.S. would be the “last bullet” for Rouhani’s qualification to be president. Negotiations with Trump would “mean this administration has no ability to manage the country’s affairs.” Link.  

Article in reformist Shargh by former member of National Front (Mossadegh’s party). Says Iran cannot rely much on Russia or China and must convince Europeans to come out stronger against the US. So unlike Kayhan, this piece argues that Iran should have more reliance on Europe. Link.

  • “Some groups in Iran stand alongside Israel’s lobbies and U.S. Republicans in their desire for the defeat of the JCPOA.”
  • “What Russia and China are up to is clear, in this threatening environment, they are using the Iran card to maximize the economic and even diplomatic concessions they can get from the West. We shouldn’t rely on them, but the EU on the other hand has certain capabilities.”

Article in Etemad Daily, close to Green Movement Leader Mehdi Karroubi. Author Farid Marjaee says in reaction to Trump’s offer of unconditional negotiations:

  • Before the start of any negotiations Trump must make his position on Pompeo’s 12 conditions clear. If Iran must accept these conditions what is the point of negotiations? Especially because Pompeo declared that Iran should satisfy some conditions after Trump’s offer of unconditional negotiation.
  • Trump must go back to JCPOA and start negotiations from there. The JCPOA was an international agreement accepted by all powers.

Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari wrote a letter to Trump responding to his offer for a meeting with Rouhani without conditions. The letter was provocative and ruled out any possibility for negotiations. Link.

  • “Mr. Trump, Iran is North Korea to give you a positive response to your desire for negotiations. You should know the Iranian people’s religion and faith was revived by Islam and nurtured by Imam Khomeini and they have many differences with hegemonic nations and will never allow their officials to negotiate with the Great Satan.”
  • “You are a president that is unprofessional in politics … previous presidents whether from military or political backgrounds who knew more than you or learned that Iran and Iranians are not susceptible to threats and would unite and become one in the face of any foreign threat or pressure.”
  • “You should ask your specialists and experts with experience and who are impartial whether they accept your games or whether they believe in the conclusion that you expect? Our revelatory and secret intelligence shows they do not.”
  • “You will take your desire that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s officials will want to negotiate with you or that they will get permission from the Iranian people to negotiate with you. You will never see this day. Sit in your black palace [means the White House] and stay there with your delusions about negotiating with Iran and know that this wish will not only stay with you until the end of your presidency but will be unfulfilled for future American presidents as well.”

 

About Author

Sina ToossiSina ToossiSina Toossi joined the National Iranian American Council as a Research Associate in July 2018. In this role, Sina conducts research and writing on U.S.-Iran relations, Iranian politics, and Middle East policy issues. Sina has been published in Newsweek, The National Interest, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic Council’s IranSource, ThinkProgress, and The Washington Quarterly.
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