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Where Is The Political Base Of Iran's President?

By Akbar E. Torbat

03 May, 2014

 Iran's president Hassan Rouhani (formerly Fereidon Sorkhei) "does not have any political or social base of his own at home."  That was a statement by Ahmad Pournejati , a reformist  and a former member of the Iranian parliament. [1] According to Pornejati, Rouhani did not comply with the demands of his reformists' allies who made the ground for him to become president. Losing reformists' supports, Rouhani now depends on the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Western Powers for support.  Rohani's political-base is strong in London and in Washington. This can be understood from the support he is getting from the Western media and lobby organizations.  

Rouhani's secret dealing with the US to settle Iran's nuclear dispute has raised a lot of criticisms in the Iranian political circles, including the Iranian parliament. Because Rouhani does not have people's support, he is seen as a West's stooge who tries to abandon Iran's nuclear program. His dealing has to do more with getting support from the West to preserve the clerical rule in Iran than to defend Iran's nuclear rights in the dispute.

Rouhani pretends his secret nuke deal was not Iran's outright yield but instead was surrendering of the Big Six powers to Iran. [2] When some academics criticized his secret deal, he called them uneducated, while he has given himself a doctorate title since he served in the Iranian Parliament more than three decades ago. A British university (Glasgow Caledonian) tried to legitimize his "doctorate" title by publishing a one-page summary of a paper supposedly written by Hassan Fereidon dated July 1998. But that turned out to be an embarrassment to the university and Rouhani himself as the main idea and expressions in the summery were from a book titled Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence written by an Islamic Scholar Mohammad Hashim Kamali, which had been originally published in 1989. [3] Despite all that, President Barack Obama praised Rouhani and his election in a television message he sent on March 20, 2014, for the occasion of Iranian New Year day Norooz. He said "Last year, you—the Iranian people—made your voice heard when you elected Dr. Hassan Rouhani as your new president.  During his campaign, he pledged to strengthen Iran's economy, improve the lives of the Iranian people and engage constructively with the international community—and he was elected with your strong support". [4]  It was a surprise that a country founded on the basis of separation of religion and state to view the clerical oligarchy in Tehran as the rightful government of Iran.

Rouhani came to office by the motto of "prudence and hope".  However, his promise of transparency became secrecy, his promise of political participation for all turned out to be purging his critics from the government institutions, his promise of freedom of the press turned out to be shutting down critical newspapers and giving warning notices to others. [5]    Being afraid of worker revolt against the regime, he did not approve a permit for a march on the May 1 st Labor Day celebration requested by the state labor organization "Khaneh Kargar".

Despite his promises, Rouhani has made no progress on promoting and protecting freedom of speech. In late March, it was announced  that some prisoners had been pardoned or their sentences were reduced by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but it was not indicated  whether any political prisoners were among them. The number of political prisoners in Iran is quite large. According to Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, there are currently about 900 political prisoners in Iran.  Imprisoning political dissidents and executions have continued under Rouhani's watchful eyes.  In fact, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, whose one of his brothers is heading the judiciary and another one is heading the parliament, has loudly said the world should stop complaining about Iran's executions and instead "be grateful for this great service to humanity". [6]   Rouhani's justice minister, Mustafa pour-Mohammadi, has blood on his hands for executing thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. [7] As a matter of formality, both the US and EU officials have publicly criticized Iran's human rights records, but at the same time they have restarted their commercial business with Iran in exchange for Iran dismantling its nuclear program.

Rouhani has filled his cabinet with very wealthy ministers.  According to Elias Naderan, a member of Iran's parliament, several ministers in Rouhani's cabinet have about 800 to 1000 billion tomans ($265 to $330 million dollar) wealth. [8]  While most Iranians are suffering from poverty, Rouhani's wife gave a lavish party on April 19 in previous Shah's Sadabad Palace, which raised strong criticisms in the Iranian media. [9]  In February, Rouhani spent pennies of the approximately $ 4 billion returned to Iran (a part of the $100 billion Iran's assets frozen by the West) to give food baskets to the poor hoping to build a political base among them.  However, his action backfired as it was demeaning to the poor who were treated like beggars. The poor had to wait hours outside in frigid weather to get to front of the long line, at which time some found they were not qualified to get the foods. Two persons died in the stamped in the crowded lines while waiting to get the foods. Ultimately, Rouhani had to apologize on state television for the problems the food distribution had caused.

Rouhani urged the Iranian people in late April not to apply for monthly $15 cash subsidies. Contrary to his expectation, 73 million or 95% of the 77-million Iran's population registered to receive the subsidy, which amounts to about $1,140 million per month. [10]  In this year budget, he has increased the funding for clerical institutions while cutting the funds for essential subsidies.  Under the clerical regime, the Iranian workers have become more and more impoverished while the clerics, their relatives and cronies have amassed enormous wealth.

Instead of speaking about what he has done to solve the country's problems, Rouhani frequently criticizes his predecessor, former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad gained people's support for his promise to bring Iran out of the hands of the oil mafia led by cleric tycoon Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his sons. Rouhani has done just the opposite. His oil minister, Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, has been involved in a major oil corruption case.  Zangeneh served as the oil minister in Mohammad Khatami's cabinet (1997-2005). In 2001, Zangeneh signed the shameful Crescent oil contract through a middleman involving Rafsanjani family. Crescent Petroleum is a privately owned oil and gas company headquartered in the United Arab Emirates. Under the 25-year contract, the National Iranian Oil Company obligated Iran to sell oil to Crescent at a bargain price of $18 to $40 as compared to the current price of over $100 per barrel. [11] In 2006, Iran unilaterally canceled the Crescent contract. The case is now in the International Hague Arbitration Tribunal for corruption charges.

In the meantime, Rouhani wants to bring back the international oil companies and give them lucrative contracts. In late January 2014, he led a delegation that included Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Rouhani presented an outline of the new "Iran Petroleum Contract" to replace the former "buy-back" contract format in order to attract investment from the oil companies. To encourage the oil companies' investments, he has proposed long-term contracts and faster production rate to the companies. While this is good for the oil companies, it is not good for Iran because it deplete Iran's oilfield and will flood the market leading to lower oil prices.  At Davos, Rouhani attended a meeting with oil companies' executives including Christophe de Margerie, the Chief Executive Officer of the French oil company Total SA.  De Margerie in an interview said, the oil contracts will be "more sexy than before". [12]

Rouhani's political base will be further tested as he has begun to implement the next phase of neoliberal reforms prescribed by the International Monetary Fund.  While the Iranian economy is already in recession, It remains to be seen how the Iranians, 95% of whom have registered to get a monthly subsidy check, will react to Rouhani's economic austerity program.

Akbar E. Torbat (atorbat@calstatela.edu) teaches economics at California State University, Los Angeles. He received his Ph.D. in political economy from the University of Texas at Dallas.

[1] As quoted in the daily Kayhan newspaper on Feb 1, 2014

[2] Iran Times, January 17, 2014. 

[3] https://khodnevis.org/article/51406#.U1rXWtGPLmI , see page 40 of the book at http://www.tayseerulquran.com/userfiles/147file14569.pdf .

[4] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/03/20/statement-president-obama-nowruz

[5] Bahar, 9 day, Aseman newspapers were temporary banned.

[6] Iran Times, March 14, 2014

[7] http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/news/inside-iran/1000000361-who-is-mostafa-pourmohammadi-a-profile-of-iranian-president-hassan-rouhanis-pick-for-minister-of-justice.html#.U2Rjt1eTImY

[8] As reported on Thursday (27 April) , Fars News Agency

[9] Reuters, Iran president under fire over wife's 'lavish' party, April 22, 2014, https://news.yahoo.com/iran-president-under-fire-over-wifes-lavish-party-210555245.html;_ylt=AwrSbmfR_FpTrn0A4UFXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEzYzNpcmw1BHNlYwNzcgRwb3MDMQRjb2xvA2dxMQR2dGlkA1ZJUDM1MV8x

[10] http://news.yahoo.com/iranians-deliver-rouhanis-first-political-defeat-095852815.html 455,000 rials

[11] http://www.presstv.com/detail/2013/12/22/341406/crescent-hague-arbitration-tribunal-iran-uae-oil-gas-minister/

[12] Iran to Woo Oil Companies With 'Sexy' Contracts, Total CEO Says, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-24/iran-to-woo-oil-companies-with-sexy-contracts-total-ceo-says.html



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