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Iran's President Hassan Rouhani waves as he arrives at a ceremony marking the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran February 10, 2017. via REUTERS

How Rouhani’s Second Term Will Deepen Iran’s Crises

Amir Basiri – Forbes

The outcome of Iran’s recent presidential elections didn’t sit well with Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Iranian regime. The ailing Khamenei, who has final say on all critical matters of state, evidently preferred the winner of the race to be Ebrahim Raisi, the cleric who will likely be his successor. However, fearing social uprisings and wider consequences, he made the ultimate decision to grant the incumbent Hassan Rouhani a second term as president.

In this regard, the results of Iran’s opaque and undemocratic elections weren’t a reflection of the popular vote, but rather the manifestation of the Supreme Leader’s tenuous hold on power and a widening rift among the ruling elite.

Rouhani took full advantage of Khamenei’s waning authority to up the ante and secure his own bid for presidency. But by doing so, he crossed several red lines and opened up a Pandora’s box that will cost him and his regime dearly down the road. As he debuts his second term, Rouhani is faced with dilemmas that are largely of his own making and problems that he neither has the will nor the power to fix.

Having failed to deliver on promises he made before his first term, Rouhani resorted to blaming his opponents and the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to whitewash his own shortcomings. He portrayed himself as a lawyer defending the rights of voters and vilified his rival Raisi by highlighting the latter’s role in suppressing and executing dissidents and activists. Rouhani went as far as alluding to the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988, which was overseen by a council of clerics to which Raisi belonged. Ironically, Rouhani’s own justice minister, Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, was another member of the same council, which later became known as the “Death Commission.”

To be true, Rouhani himself is anything but “moderate.” A video recently surfaced which shows him calling for public executions of dissidents in a parliament session. His first term as president was marked with more than 3,000 executions and further crackdown on freedom of expression  and press. Nonetheless, should he make the slightest move to deliver on any of his campaign promises for better human rights situation, he’ll have to deal with the Revolutionary Guards and the Supreme Leader, who control most of the country’s military and security apparatus.

On the economic front too, it is the IRGC and not the president who have the greater leverage. Ordinary Iranians have not yet felt the effect of the economic incentives and sanctions relief resulting from Rouhani’s much-touted nuclear deal with world powers. Instead, billions of dollars have been poured into the coffers of the IRGC, which spent it on its violent agendas in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Over the past decades, the Guards have established a vast economic empire that encompasses much of the country’s financial and industrial infrastructure. Any betterment of the economic situation will be caveated on wrenching control out of the IRGC’s hands, not something that Rouhani’s ilk would be willing to do.

Rouhani himself is not exempt from squandering the country’s riches on projects that have nothing to do with the population’s interest. Iranian officials recently acknowledged that during Rouhani’s first term, the country’s defense budget has seen a 145%.

Rouhani’s campaign promises to get rid of sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missile program and terrorist activities ring hollow as well, as those two domains are in the exclusive control of the Guards. A few days after the elections, the IRGC unveiled the construction of its third underground missile factory.

In his first term, Rouhani took advantage of the Obama administration’s penchant for leniency and rapprochement to get concessions without giving back in return. The Trump administration, however, has made it clear that it will not follow in Obama’s footsteps. Following the elections, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Rouhani to end Iran’s destabilizing role in the Middle East region and put an end to its ballistic missile testing. Rouhani will have to rein in the Revolutionary Guards if he wants to make any serious inroads on the international front.

The situation has effectively put Rouhani in a catch-22 situation. The only way he can make good on his word is to confront the IRGC and the Supreme Leader himself in earnest. However, having been the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council for decades, Rouhani knows as well as any how critical the Guards are to the survival of the regime he serves. Following his supposed victory, Rouhani was quick to mend fences with the IRGC and praise them for their role in developing Iran’s ballistic missiles.

He also knows that a face-off at the higher echelons of power will drive a wedge in the regime’s rank and file and will further weaken its grip on power. The situation would pave the way for massive social uprisings that would possibly lead to the regime’s downfall.

His only alternative would be to renege on his campaign promises and acknowledge the truth that he has no authority and is only a facilitator in a state that is run by the Supreme Leader and the IRGC. Such a confession would defuse any effort he has made to internationally legitimize the tyranny of the mullahs by painting a democratic picture of his regime. But more importantly, such as decision would pit him against an increasingly restive society that will take to the streets to reclaim its long denied rights.

Rouhani might have managed to outmaneuver the Supreme Leader and secure a second term of presidency. But in the process he has pushed his regime a step closer to its inevitable collapse. The choices he now faces are grim

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