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Is Rouhani Running Out of Time?

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013 amid an atmosphere of hope and high expectations. Considered to be a practical, reform-minded moderate, his pledges to improve Iranian relations with the West and get the country's economy back on track proved to be of great appeal to Iranians weary of eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's bombast and mismanagement.

Rouhani's administration delivered on one half of its bargain with the public earlier this year, having secured a multilateral agreement with the United States and world powers on its controversial nuclear energy program. The second half of that deal -- luring investors back to Iran to help strengthen its flailing economy -- is largely contingent on the lifting of economic sanctions that had been levied against the country by the United States and the international community.

The Iranian president has received pushback from a number of hardliners in his country, but none more disconcerting than that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Khamenei's warnings against the many malignant effects of Western influence now appear to have presaged a revanchist campaign against soft targets of Westernization such as journalists and investors -- both crucial in Rouhani's bid to open the country up for business.

Talk of Western cultural imperialism -- sometimes referred to as "Westoxification" or gharbzadegi -- is certainly nothing new in the Islamic Republic, and it in fact predates the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the middle of the 20th century, during the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty, Iran was a country experiencing rapid modernization and urbanization. The resulting changes -- coupled with lingering frustration over Western interference in the country -- made an anti-colonial message shrouded in Islam very appealing with the public, so much so that it would later be adopted by the Islamic Republic's revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khomeini's successor presides over a very different Iran however, and Khamenei's own financial stake in the country's kleptocratic economy positions him to benefit from greater investment and trade. Forced to maintain a pretense of objectivity and resistance, the reigning supreme leader may simply be placating the country's old guard with his recent arrests and rhetoric.

"While the supreme leader seemingly wanted a deal to end sanctions so that Iran could rejoin the global economy, his actions since suggest he doesn't want to upset loyal elites who have been enriched in the past decade," writes Foreign Policy's special correspondent in Tehran.

All of this suggests that Rouhani might be operating on borrowed time. Elected to help midwife the country toward international legitimacy, the president will have to deliver quickly on the economy if he is to maintain the supreme leader's tepid endorsement. Although Iran is projected to see impressive rates of growth over the next two years, much of that is contingent on full sanctions relief and compliance with the nuclear accord. Meanwhile, unemployment remains high across the country, and experts of every ideological persuasion are now questioning Rouhani's acumen and understanding of economics.

"Almost every technocrat in Iran agrees that the elected president must ... spend more time meeting with top economic officials and experts on a regular basis," writes Al-Monitor contributor Alireza Ramezani.

Next year's parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections thus take on greater significance in light of the current pressure cooker political environment, as Rouhani and his pragmatist allies push for a bigger political mandate to carry them into the 2017 presidential campaign.

More on this:

Khamenei's Counterrevolution Is Underway -- Foreign Policy

Is Rouhani's Image as Economic Savior Crumbling? -- AEI

Sanctions Relief a Mixed Blessing for Outmoded Iranian Economy -- Economist

An Election to Watch in Iran -- RealClearWorld

 

Around the Region

Iran is already searching for its next supreme leader. Former president and Iranian magnate Hashemi Rafsanjani claims that the Assembly of Experts -- the clerical body responsible for selecting and supervising the supreme leader -- is vetting candidates to replace the country's current leader, Ali Khamenei. Reuters has more.

An Important first step in Saudi Arabia. Al-Monitor's Bruce Riedel urges the United States to press Saudi Arabia to reform following this weekend's historic vote. Though the election of 20 women to municipal boards across the country marks a historic domestic achievement for the Kingdom, "The region around Saudi Arabia is in chaos. Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are in civil war. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) are operating inside the kingdom. Iran remains a threat to Gulf stability."

Are Syria's rebels moderating? "The promise of Western military support and a shared opposition to Russia's intervention are driving local forces to unite and -- for many of them -- move away from extremist rhetoric." Read the rest here.

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