August 28, 2018

Iran’s hardliners are going after the entire Rouhani Administration

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A hardliner-led campaign, capitalizing on the late-June bazaari protests, seeks to take down the whole Rouhani government, possibly including Rouhani himself.

Parliament may soon vote to censure Rouhani. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared before Parliament on August 28 for questioning. Parliamentarians grilled Rouhani on issues related to Iran’s currency crisis and high unemployment rates. Parliamentarians were not satisfied with Rouhani’s responses and referred his case to the Judiciary. The Judiciary, however, is unlikely to charge Rouhani. The Judiciary may not even the see the case, *according to Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani. Parliamentarians’ ever-increasing discontent with Rouhani increases the likelihood that Parliament may vote to censure Rouhani, potentially leading to his removal from office.

Hardliners have forced the removal of three Rouhani cabinet members in the last month or so. Economic pressures forced Rouhani to oust Central Bank head Valiollah Seif on July 25. One hundred thirty-seven parliamentarians voted in a close ballot to *impeach Economic Affairs and Finance Minister Massoud Karbasian on August 26. Parliamentarians also *impeached Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Minister Ali Rabiei on August 8.

Hardliners may capitalize on future events to attack Rouhani and push for more senior officials to resign. The ever-worsening condition of the Iranian economy, the likelihood of more economically-fueled protests throughout Iranian cities, and forthcoming U.S. sanctions against Iranian energy exports and the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) may allow Principlists to force the resignation of more senior Rouhani administration officials.

Hardliner parliamentarian Hamid Reza Hajji Babaei *called out First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri on August 15, stating that the “head of the nation’s economic team…needs to be held accountable.” Hardliners may also go after Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Budgeting and Planning Organization head Mohammad Bagher Nobakht. Nobakht, one of Rouhani’s closest allies, resigned as government spokesperson on July 31 but retained his job as Rouhani’s budget point person. Nobakht had previously *submitted his resignation to Rouhani but Rouhani refused his request. 

The impeachments of Rouhani and Jahangiri would put Supreme Leader Khamenei directly in control of the government. If a two-thirds majority of Parliament votes in favor of censuring Rouhani, Khamenei would have the constitutional authority to remove Rouhani from office. Jahangiri would then assume the position as interim president for 50 days until an emergency election is held to determine the Islamic Republic’s next president. If Parliament impeaches Jahangiri as well, it would fall directly to Khamenei to choose a temporary president pending emergency elections. Such an action would be a de facto parliamentary coup.

Rouhani has tried to stave off hardliners by offering a key minister post to the IRGC without success. The Rouhani Administration reportedly *offered the recently-vacated labor minister post to the IRGC’s long-time financier and money man, Parviz Fattah on August 14. Fattah currently manages the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC) and once served as the head of the IRGC’s financial holding company, Bonyad Taavon Sepah. Fattah refused the Rouhani administration’s purported offer. IRGC and other hardline elements likely coordinated with Fattah in order to keep Rouhani’s head under water ahead of his parliamentary questioning on August 28. Fattah also likely understands that taking the labor job would be a fool’s errand. Unemployment is one of protesters’ primary grievances

Hardliner-led changes will not solve the regime’s endemic issues. Hardliner-fueled attempts to shame Rouhani over Iran’s poor economic conditions will not remedy the regime’s systemic economic flaws nor appease people’s calls for government accountability. Inter-party bickering and feuds are unlikely to placate the Iranian people either. Iranians often take to political chants during economic protests, calling on both reformists and conservatives to end their “escapades.” The political destruction of Rouhani will leave the hardliners as the only remaining political targets for protests.

Hardliner attempts to destroy Rouhani may ultimately backfire:

  • Staged anti-Rouhani *protests could inadvertently spiral out of control and spark the renewal of widespread anti-regime protests. Many contend that the Dey Protests in late-December 2017 began after Mashhad-based hardliners directed *anti-Rouhani protests over economic grievances.

  • The prosecution of government officials in Judiciary-ran *show trials may in fact garner sympathy for the Rouhani administration instead of projecting them as the causes for economic turmoil in Iran

  • Hardliner success in crushing Rouhani and reformists’ efforts to implement financial and banking reforms, helping to bring Iran into the global financial fold, may shave years off the regime’s lifespan

  • Greater hardliner influence in Iranian politics may drive greater resources to the IRGC’s regional activities, which will likely help fuel anti-regime sentiment as the regime invests more of its already-constrained resources abroad

U.S. policymakers will need to keep a close eye on the events unfolding in Iran but must also understand that the defeat of Rouhani serves only to strengthen the hands of Iran’s hardliners in the short-term. Rouhani’s destruction will ease the accession of a hardliner president in 2021, thus tightening the grasp of regime Principlists in Iranian politics for years to come.

CTP Iran Analyst Nicholas Carl contributed research and analysis to this report.