Threatened at Home, Iran’s President Rouhani Takes Harder Line

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the head of the Revolutionary Guards, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari (File)

“Rouhani made a huge concession to hardliners”

Sune Engel Rasmussen writes for the Wall Street Journal, with a contribution from EA:

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 this president.

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 your service to implement any policy that serves the Islamic Republic.”

Mr. Rouhani’s political pivot comes at a 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 hardliners, 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.”

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Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

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