Washington, DC – Even as Iran’s moderate president negotiates with the West after eight years of conservative rule, hardliners in the country have escalated human rights abuses in part to undermine moderates, according to the former head of Iran’s largest student union for democracy and human rights. Mehdi Arabshahi, former President of the Office for Consolidating Unity, spoke at a Stimson Center event along with Profesor Mohammad Tabaar of Texas A&M University, about the challenges that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani faces on the domestic front in the midst of historic negotiations with the West.

Though the West praises Rouhani’s willingness to negotiate, hardliners continue to violate human rights in Iran, noted Arabshahi. They use this as political message, he said, to show to the public and to the world that they still hold significant power. For example, “the number of executions increased after the presidential election” and that political prisoners are still common in the Islamic Republic. “Maybe they plan on Rouhani’s failure in the future,” he added, acknowledging that “this area is not under the control of Rouhani.”

According to Tabaar, Iranian hardliners primarily fear that Rouhani is giving up too much to the West regarding the nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. They would consider any rollback as an intolerable submission to Western demands. Moreover, Tabaar said, conservatives insist that the true U.S. aim is a change of regime and that the talks engaged by Rouhani “could ultimately undermine the entire political system.” In this context, Arabshahi identified the lifting of sanctions as one of Rouhani’s main challenges to prove American good will.

But conservatives are not only concerned about the fate of the general Iranian system. The factional distribution of power is a particularly crucial issue in the context of the upcoming elections for the parliament and the assembly of experts: “If Rouhani manages to score some success, that is to eventually remove some of the sanctions and the economy gets better, he could get a lot of credit and that could empower [his faction] domestically.” This could isolate hardliners for years to come.

Although hardliners increasingly express criticisms against Rouhani, the Supreme Leader keeps them relatively silent for now. According to Arabshahi, Khamenei plays a subtle game by allowing the president to participate in the international talks while voicing his pessimism about their outcome. “He wants to keep this anti-Western image,” explained Arabshahi. “If the nuclear talks are successful, then he can say that he supported Rouhani, but if they are not, he can say that he had never been optimistic.” Tabaar added that this strategy is crucial for Khamenei to regain some political capital and eventually make a powerful comeback.

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