Facing Threats at Home and Abroad, Iran’s President Takes a Harder Line


Crises provoke unity as Hassan Rouhani’s defiant tone wins praise from military, conservatives

By Sune Engel Rasmussen   |   July 11, 2018

BEIRUT—for much of his presidency, Hassan Rouhani has been at loggerheads with Iran’s military and conservative establishment, as he forged diplomatic ties with the West to break his country’s international isolation.

But now with his political survival in question, Mr. Rouhani is sounding a lot like Iran’s hard-liners.

During a visit to Switzerland last week, Mr. Rouhani responded to U.S. plans to enforce a global freeze on Iranian oil exports by threatening to disrupt the flow of Middle Eastern oil through the Persian Gulf. It was seen as a warning to the world that Iran could block the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway for about one-third of global seaborne oil trade—a threat made before by Iran’s military, but not by Mr. Rouhani.

Iran’s military leaders, whose powers Mr. Rouhani has tried to curb, were suddenly praising the politically moderate president. “I kiss your hand for expressing such wise and timely comments,” Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, said in an open letter to Mr. Rouhani that grabbed state media headlines. Gen. Soleimani, who is one of Iran’s most powerful military figures, added: “I am at your service to implement any policy that serves the Islamic Republic.”

Mr. Rouhani’s political pivot comes at a time of crisis for his government.

After President Donald Trump’s withdrawal in May from the multinational agreement that checked Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions, Mr. Rouhani’s bridge to the West is in danger of collapsing while a flailing economy has triggered protests. Banks and investors are heading for the exits.

Mr. Rouhani’s 2013 election had ushered in hope among his supporters of shedding Iran’s status as international pariah. Mr. Rouhani had staved off pressure from political forces opposed to diplomatic outreach—until now.

“Rouhani made a huge concession” to hard-liners, said Scott Lucas, an Iran expert and professor at the University of Birmingham. “This is the hardest line he has come out with, aiming at the Americans.”

To some who supported Mr. Rouhani’s candidacy, the tough rhetoric is jarring.

“We voted for Mr. Rouhani because he promised to open the doors for international relations. Threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz is not reasonable and is not moderate,” said an unemployed 31-year-old woman in Tehran who declined to give her full name out of fear of retaliation by authorities. “We don’t want to get isolated again.”

Iran’s economy is under severe strain. In the first half of June, within a month of Mr. Trump’s nuclear deal withdrawal, Iranian oil exports dropped 16%. India, South Korea and Japan scaled back purchases, with European countries likely to follow. The currency is plummeting, with the unofficial value of the rial, which most Iranians are forced to trade, nearly halving since January.

In recent months, hundreds of demonstrations have erupted across the country over rising prices, corruption and environmental damage: from steelworkers, truck drivers and hospital staff to shop owners in the capital’s oldest bazaar.

Frustration has also mounted over Iran’s lack of social and political freedoms. In the past week, Iranian women have posted videos on social media of themselves dancing in public, in solidarity with Maedeh Hojabri, a teenager who was arrested for filming herself dancing.

The displays follow a protest movement of women removing their law-mandated hijabs in public.

Amid the upheaval, former foes are calling for unity by trying to rally the public around defiance to the West.

Until recently, the military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei openly called for Mr. Rouhani’s impeachment. But after the president took a more defiant tone—saying in a late-June speech that, together, the Iranian people would defeat the U.S. “in the fight of wills,” the adviser, Yahya Rahim Safavi, said it was the duty of all Iranians to support the government, “and defuse the enemies’ plots.”

Fars News, which is aligned with the Revolutionary Guards, wrote: ” We expect Rouhani not to return to his previous rhetoric.”

Ultimately, Mr. Rouhani’s political fortunes largely rest with the supreme leader, whose endorsement is necessary for any president to remain in his post.

“The supreme leader is still backing Rouhani’s position,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, an international think tank who focuses on Iran. “He wants to avoid a bigger conflict within the political establishment.”

Though Mr. Rouhani built his outreach to the West around the nuclear deal, efforts to salvage the multination pact following the U.S. pullout have so far been insufficient.

After a meeting in Vienna on Friday between Iran, European powers and China, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stressed the importance of preserving the accord—and the commercial relationships it fostered—but the summit was thin on details.

Some say voters shouldn’t be surprised with Mr. Rouhani’s political turn toward hard-line elements in a system for which he has long been a part.

During the 1980s, he held several high-level security posts, including as commander of the air force. In 1999, Mr. Rouhani, then secretary of the national security council, ordered the Revolutionary Guard to quash student protests in Tehran, calling for protesters to be charged with “corruption on earth”—a crime punishable by death.

“The people who voted for Rouhani are now seeing the result,” said Hassan, 32, a resident of Tehran who didn’t want his full name used. The regime, he said, “comes together when it is needed for national security.”

—Aresu Eqbali in Tehran contributed to this article.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com



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