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Rouhani, the second Ahmadinejad?

Jamshid Barzegar
Jamshid Barzegar
July 23, 2018

By trading provocations with Donald Trump, Rouhani shows no trace of the promises he made to the Iranian people in 2013. Instead, he appears to be drifting toward high-placed radical voices, says Jamshid Barzegar.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani under a picture of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Mehri

The latest remarks by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about possibly closing the Strait of Hormuz to international oil shipments show no trace of the promises he made to the Iranian people in 2013. Instead, they sound more like the bellicose statements often uttered by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

In the domestic sphere, President Rouhani has largely been carrying out his election campaign vows. But on the international level, what makes him choose to echo the harsh tone used by Ahmadinejad, despite his repeated criticism of the former leader’s ways and his stated priority to resolve Iran's disputes with the West through negotiation?

Read more: Trump lashes out at Iran in all-caps tweet

Speaking to a small audience

It seems multiple factors are behind Rouhani's change of tone in foreign policy, all of which led him to appeal to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and revolutionary guard commanders rather than to the people who voted for him.

Firstly, the widespread unrest that has recently spread to all corners of Iran can be tied to this change of policy. The broad protests have been taking place to condemn the water and power shortages, the currency crisis, the unemployment and the widespread corruption among Iranian officials.

Jamshid Barzegar, head of DW's Farsi service
Jamshid Barzegar leads DW's Farsi serviceImage: DW/B. Scheid

Secondly, the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the changes to Trump's cabinet have cast a pall over officials in Washington, leading to a fear of adopting harsher stances towards Iran.

Yet the recent US aggression towards Tehran has gone so far that US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have explicitly claimed they are helping organize the widespread unrest in Iran and vowed all-out support for the protesters. Moreover, the Trump administration’s threat to hamper Iranian oil exports starting in November 2018 — coupled with its efforts to levy what Trump has called "historic" sanctions on Iran and the increasing pressures on Iran's partners to diminish trade ties with Tehran — are eerily reminiscent of the last years of Ahmadinejad's presidency.

Read more: Could Iran really close the Strait of Hormuz?

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani warns US against pulling out of nuclear deal.

Praise from the top

What remains the same are the positions taken by Ali Khamenei, who usually refuses to explicitly support Rouhani, but has recently praised the president over his comments on shutting down the Hormuz. The supreme leader asked the foreign minister to take a similar stance; the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, also commended Rouhani’s Hormuz statement in a letter.

It seems on the one hand, the position of the moderates and the reformists among voters has waned considerably in recent months. On the other hand, rather than attempt to strengthen it, Rouhani has apparently sought to anchor his own position within the structure of powers.

Risky business

And what better way to establish his position within the power structure than to bolster good relations with the leader and the hardliners? To do so, President Rouhani has not only resorted to Ahmadinejad's policies, but also has gone so far as to repeat a comment made by none other than Saddam Hussein: "Any conflict with Iran, is the mother of all wars." The late Iraqi dictator launched that provocation just before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 — and history has noted how smoothly that went. 

While Rouhani’s new approach appears to be concentrated at appeasing hardliners at home, its consequences will not be limited to the domestic sphere, as Trump’s vitriolic reaction demonstrated.  At the very least it will increase doubts among European partners desperate to save Iran's nuclear deal — sowing the seeds of further enmity in an already tense international climate. 

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