As Hassan Rouhani’s first 100 days as Iran’s president draw to a close, some may be wondering how serious he is about campaign promises to improve human rights and institutionalize reform.

Since Rouhani came into office, Iran’s domestic landscape has yet to undergo any serious reform.  Last month alone, 16 prisoners accused on belonging to Sunni separatist groups were executed as retribution for the recent killing of 14 Iranian soldiers on the volatile border with Pakistan, the reformist newspaper Bahar Daily was banned and its editor-in-chief arrested for publishing commentary on the Prophet Mohammad, and prominent actress Pegah Ahangarani was sentenced to 18 months in prison for her political activism, termed by authorities as “action against national security and links to foreign media.”

This year, the government has taken the lives of more than 400 Iranians, at least 125 of them executed since Rouhani’s election on June 14.

A presentation late last month by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, reaffirmed that little progress had been made since Rouhani’s election.

In his report, Shaheed stated there had been “no signs of improvement in areas such as gender discrimination, violations of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.”

The human rights situation in Iran will continue to remain grim, with minimal progress and multiple setbacks, unless Rouhani achieves a nuclear deal with the United States. Until then, Rouhani will continue to face pressure from hardliners who refuse to support domestic change and social reform inside Iran.

Iran’s Domestic Tussle

Internal domestic debates within the country have already begun to take shape between conservatives wishing to maintain the status quo and reformers pushing the new president to implement social and societal changes. This polarizing domestic landscape makes it difficult to institutionalize even incremental, let alone sweeping, reforms.

Conservatives in Iran’s parliament threatened to remove the Rouhani-appointed Science Minister Reza Faraji Dana just 10 days after he received a vote of confidence. Dana angered conservative members of parliament by hiring individuals who were supportive or sympathetic to the 2009 post-election demonstrations that rocked the country.

In response to conservative threats, 150 Iranian members of parliament signed a letter of protest asking Rouhani to intervene on behalf of Dana. The move placed Rouhani in the difficult position of either succumbing to conservatives or knowingly facing backlash for moving to undermine their power.

Hardline conservatives have also frequently used social and civil issues to challenge Rouhani’s administration. For instance, Rouhani’s administration has released statements on releasing political prisoners that contradict those made by conservatives.

Last month, a spokesman for Iran’s judiciary, Mohsen Ejei, announced the official position that no more political prisoners would be released on the religious holiday Eid Ghadir. Nevertheless, Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi said that more political prisoners would indeed be freed on the religious holiday, suggesting a behind-the-scenes power struggle between reformist and conservative factions on the issue of political prisoners.

Iran’s judiciary has also countered Rouhani’s proposal that a special committee be established to review the cases of Iranian citizens who left the country after the 2009 election protests and now wish to return.  In a public response, the judiciary declared, “Individuals who have committed a crime and left the country, [when] they return, they will be pursued and their accusations will be addressed.”

The judiciary also pushed back against rumors that that the house arrests of Green Movement leaders Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard would soon be lifted. “These individuals committed a crime and they’ve done harm to the system, the country and the people,” Ejei told reporters last week. “Decisions were adopted about these people, and there has been no change in their punishment.”

Meanwhile, hardline conservative Mohammad Vaezi told state television last month that the ban on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter would remain in place.

However, days later, Rouhani released an official statement insisting that the unblocking of social networks was still under review and that no final decision had been made. More recently, Culture Minister Ali Jannati reaffirmed Rouhani’s position earlier this month by stating that “Facebook should be accessible to everyone.”

Such evidently contradictory remarks from Iranian officials suggest that internal domestic rivalries are coalescing. It also makes it clear that opposition to the new administration stems from fears among conservatives that their power and ideological views may be compromised by Rouhani’s potentially reformist agenda.

Tensions between hardliners and Rouhani’s government have also taken a personal toll. When hardline newspaper Kayhan, which frequently represents the views of many conservative critics, published an article claiming that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif had told lawmakers during a closed-door meeting that the historic Rouhani-Obama telephone conversation was a mistake, Zarif told Mehr News Agency that he became so upset with the newspaper’s  misreporting that he developed severe back pain and had to go to the hospital.

This domestic showdown demonstrates how Rouhani cannot effectively focus on a dual-front campaign; the president would spread himself too thin by simultaneously advocating for domestic reform while also trying to promote U.S.-Iran rapprochement.

Yet, if Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating team and the world powers of the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany) come to an agreement this week in Geneva, Rouhani is likely to become an untouchable international figure with the legitimacy and broad support needed to leverage moderate voices within his government to begin reforming Iran domestically.

The requisite easing of sanctions – a fundamental aspect of any successful deal – will not only improve Iran’s ailing economy, but also serve to strengthen Rouhani’s domestic political position and validate his mandate.

Rouhani’s High-Wire Act

Unfortunately, time is not on Rouhani’s side. He is walking on a tightrope with reformists and moderates shaking one end and hardline conservatives tugging on the other.

Last week, former interior minister and notable reformist, Abdollah Nuri, reminded Rouhani “not to forget” that his supporters voted for him because they were fed up with the “violation of civil rights” and “lawlessness” in Iran, while hardliners are simultaneously hoping that when nuclear negotiations resume this week in Geneva, the talks will fail.

The path toward institutionalizing domestic reform and upholding principles of human rights in Iran will not be smooth or easy. There will surely be intensified efforts in the coming weeks from hardline conservatives to undermine Rouhani’s administration by sabotaging the negotiations.

At the same time, some of Iran’s most influential conservative political players are in fact either cooperating with Rouhani or at least staying silent. This suggests Rouhani has more domestic legitimacy than international observers might think.

In September, after Rouhani returned to Tehran after attending the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, General Hassan Firouzabadi, second in command in Iran’s Armed Forces and a member of the elite National Security Council, endorsed the government’s initiatives at the then-upcoming nuclear talks in Geneva in October. Firouzabadi described the talks as a unique opportunity to end hostilities with the West.

Most influential members of the Iranian parliament also voiced their support for Rouhani’s UN trip and renewed efforts at international engagement.

Even Commander Ali Jafari of the conservative Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps expressed approval of Rouhani’s diplomatic outreach and told Tasnim News Agency that, while the phone call between the Iranian and American presidents had been “premature,” Rouhani had taken “firm and appropriate positions” during his trip to New York.

Most importantly, Ayatollah Khamenei has publicly reaffirmed his support for Rouhani and his team of nuclear negotiators, stating that “no one has the right to see [the] negotiating team as compromisers, they are our own children of the revolution.” This sent a message to conservative clerics and military commanders to stop criticizing Rouhani’s diplomatic initiative.

All of this suggests that the importance of U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations extends beyond matters of international security and nuclear rights. It also provides a historic opportunity for the United States to help solidify the positions of reformists and moderates in Iran so that they can extend the conversation to human rights reform.

At the moment, however, it appears that many in the U.S. Congress – at the encouragement of Israel’s leadership and lobbying groups – are intent on stymying any such progress by pushing for renewed sanctions against Iran.

Increasing sanctions at this juncture will not only endanger the success and longevity of the negotiations, but also empower and embolden hardline conservatives in Iran, who believe that the United States is not serious about achieving a nuclear deal and is intent on regime change. Rouhani’s credibility may be irreparably undermined as a result.

Conclusion

Rouhani has already shown he wants to implement social reforms in Iran. He has reopened Iran’s House of Cinema, the most important independent organization that represents Iran’s film industry, and released prominent human rights activists Nasrin Sotoudeh, Mohsen Aminzadeh, and Isa Saharkhiz.

He has also pledged to submit a civil rights bill to the Iranian parliament, and to ease Iran’s censorship policies. But, of course, more needs to be done to support human and civil liberties in the country.

Members of Congress can help support human rights reform in Iran by continuing to delay a vote on the pending Iran sanctions bill and give American diplomats some time to test diplomatic outreach. The Iranians have already come to the negotiating table. There is no need to apply additional punitive pressure.

By firmly supporting diplomacy with Rouhani’s administration and furthering nuclear negotiations, the United States will be legitimizing Rouhani’s position as a credible and respected political actor, in turn granting him additional leverage needed to promote positive social change at home.

If more sanctions on Iran are imposed, however, members of the House and Senate will not only be responsible for stifling economic opportunity and welfare in Iran, but also for preventing any meaningful human rights reform from taking place.

 

 

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