The Rouhani metre: a mix of broken promises and hope

Rouhani took over a country isolated from the international community and in dire economic straits.

Hassan Rouhani's election brought hope to Iranians [GALLO/GETTY]

Since Mohammad Khatami’s election as president of Iran in 1997, presidential elections have become more significant for Iranians. The disputed elections in 2009, which led to mass protests in Iran, added to the sensitivity of this year’s poll. As a result the current Iranian year began in March with mixed feelings about the June elections.

Some feared a repetition of 2009 events, while others were thinking of boycotting the poll. Meanwhile, politicians and presidential candidates were cautious not to commit any mishaps. This was evident in the TV debates and programmes leading up to the poll.

State-sponsored TV interviews and debates, which had been heavily criticised in 2009, were now held with a high degree of caution and wariness, and were eagerly watched by Iranians. They later proved to be very influential in deciding the election outcome. It was during one of these interviews that Hassan Rouhani -and his team- revealed what he said were short-term plans to make tangible changes to the economy and foreign affairs in the first 100 days of his administration.

Cautious optimism

A high turnout at the polls brought about a surprisingly friendly atmosphere in Iranian politics after the elections. This was reflected during President Rouhani’s inauguration, and in the Iranian Parliament’s (Majlis) warm welcome to his cabinet ministers who received remarkably high confidence votes.

Zarif’s meeting with the P5+1 foreign ministers and secretaries was the first diplomatic move by Iran and it was not welcomed by Iranian hardliners. The final hour of Rouhani’s trip to New York was enough to dissipate the friendly atmosphere that had existed since the election.

With new government critics counting down its first 100 days in power, Rouhani’s administration faced a bitter reality. Rouhani had stated that he would report to the parliament and the people on the state of the nation, as soon as his new cabinet was formed. This was considered, by his critics, as the first break of his promise; epecially because the government had declared that the administration would provide a comprehensive plan for solving the main problems facing the country after 100 days of being in office.

The current state of the nation was not exactly what the new government expected. A number of factors had resulted in a situation which was difficult to improve. The last years of Ahmadinejad’s government were marked by tensions with parliament, more sanctions were imposed on the country, and the dire consequences of his administration’s poor performance were slowly unfolding.

President Rouhani came to power by setting a priority for diplomacy and the economy, neither of which appeared to turn out as he expected.

Foreign relations issues

During his campaign, Rouhani highlighted his foreign policy plans and emphasised the necessity of prioritising the easing of tensions with the West. He then talked about how sanctions have had a significant influence on Iran’s economy, and that by resolving disagreements with the West, this issue could be solved to a considerable extent. His campaign focused on showing how Ahmadinejad’s government had mismanaged foreign policy, which in turn had led to the economy being in the dismal state it was in.

After being elected, Rouhani directed the foreign ministry to handle the nuclear talks with the P5+1 to bring the nuclear issue to a resolution. This diplomacy was welcomed by various factions in Iran and his speech at the UN General Assembly was positively received by all sides in the country.

In Iran, Rouhani’s moves, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s actions were scrutinised by all groups. Zarif’s meeting with the P5+1 foreign ministers and secretaries was the first diplomatic move by Iran which was not welcomed by Iranian hardliners. The final hour of Rouhani’s trip to New York was enough to dissipate the friendly atmosphere that had existed since the election. His unprecedented phone conversation with US President Barack Obama was condemned by the Principalists.

In response, the government said that the meetings had the full backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The 15-minute phone call was then used as a pretext by some to urge cooperation with the US. 

The revelation of the conversation by the US also raised tension with the hardliners who were not happy with the potential thawing of relations. On his return from New York, President Rouhani was greeted at the airport by two groups of demonstrators. One welcomed his diplomatic efforts in the US and the other held silent demonstrations against the phone call and Zarif’s meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Both sides, however, were outdone by a handful of hardliners who threw shoes – a sign of disrespect – at Rouhani’s car.

The following days were marked by US politicians repeatedly using the old rhetoric, “all options are on table”, with some senators claiming that the changed behaviour of the Iranian government was a result of sanctions and called for even tougher sanctions against Iran.

These attitudes had a negative effect on Iranian diplomatic efforts. The Iranians were also deeply offended by a statement made before Congress by lead US negotiator, Wendy Sherman. She said deception was a part of Iranian DNA. Consequently, these led the principalists in Iran to conclude that the softened attitude with the US has not been worth the effort. 

On October 15, the P5+1 group met with Zarif and his team in Geneva. Supporters of presidential candidate and former chief nuclear negotiator for Iran, Saeed Jalili, used the media to closely monitor every move of the two men. The comparison and criticism hit a crescendo when the Iranian team announced that it had been agreed by all sides to keep the contents of the negotiations secret. Once again, the principalists accused the government of making compromises to the West.

Despite the fact that the new administration has not been successful in fixing the economy, its honest way of dealing with it has won approvals from some.

Khamenei’s explicit support for the negotiations, declared on November 3, however, seems to have revived Rouhani’s diplomatic efforts.

The economy

The administration soon realised that sanctions, while tough, did not have a significant  effect as previously thought. Rather, it was the gross incompetence of Ahmadinejad’s handling of the economy that had a more devastating impact.

High inflation, and other problems inherited from the previous government, were not easy to put under control. While Rouhani’s victory and confidence in his cabinet led to a considerable decrease in the value of the US dollar versus the Iranian currency, comments made by the head of Iran’s central bank were a game changer, triggering more controversy. The administration’s economic team tried to realistically assess the economic situation. Meanwhile, Iranians were discontent about the soaring price of many goods and products.

With voters expecting tangible improvements in their lives, which they have yet to see, the government of “Prudence and Hope” began to report on all the missteps of the previous administration, and was not talking about concrete changes and improvements. The government’s optimism to improve the economy in the short-term has now given way to hard realism. Critics of Rouhani charged that instead of fixing problems, his team was only complaining about the problems it had inherited. 

Despite the fact that the new administration has not been successful in fixing the economy, its honest way of dealing with it has won it popular backing. Rouhani’s approval ratings have not dropped, but many criticise the government for just reporting mistakes and problems. They charge that it is very pessimistic and that the government is trying to put all blame on the previous administration.

The first 100 days of Rouhani’s administration seem to have been spent trying to get a handle on the state of the country. Rouhani understands that he cannot repeat the mistakes of his predecessor and should establish close ties with Majlis and abide by its laws. He has a long history of working with the Supreme Leader and this close relationship can bring about better cooperation. This was something Ahmadinejad tried to ignore to the detriment of his policies.

The parliament’s rejection of the candidate for the Ministry of Sport and Youth, and lower confidence votes for the candidates for ministries of education and higher education, was a signal to President Rouhani that the representatives are more closely monitoring his performance, and that he would be better off to abide by his moderate slogans. Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri has promised improvements in peoples’ lives by the next Iranian year (March), but many people are hoping to see those changes sooner rather than later

Hamidreza Gholamzadeh is a Tehran based freelance journalist and cyber activist