President Rouhani is facing a growing challenge inside Iran from both military and political opponents, particularly over his cultural policies.
Rouhani tried to blunt the opposition last week, with pressure on the State broadcaster IRIB and a call to Revolutionary Guards to ease their anti-US rhetoric.
However, the Guards and leading clerics persisted, and the Endurance Front — the hardline group formed for the 2012 Parliamentary elections and led by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi — stepped up their denuncation of Rouhani’s campaign for “openness”.
Perhaps the greatest worry for Rouhani is that those making the critical statements include the Supreme Leader: his address to the Assembly of Experts included the admission, “I share the concerns of some members about cultural issues.”
There was better news for Rouhani on the nuclear front. Expert talks on a comprehensive deal were followed by the visit of the European Union’s Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiator for the 5+1 Powers, to Tehran. Iranian leaders put out optimistic statements, and even the outlet of the Revolutionary Guards, Fars News, joined in as it suspended anti-US headlines.
Rouhani appears to be secure in his quest for a nuclear deal, as the spotlight moves next week to high-level talks with the 5+1 Powers in Vienna.
However, the President will have to tread carefully on political, social, and cultural matters. On its own, the Endurance Front does not pose that much of a threat, as it has few MPs. However, it could intersect with challenges from the Revolutionary Guards — who clearly said this week that they will not stay out of politics, defying Rouhani’s injunction — and MPs who once backed President Ahmadinejad.
Most importantly, the Supreme Leader appears to be playing a balancing game. Facing questions about his own authority, Ayatollah Khamenei is signalling to Rouhani that Government campaigns, such as the unblocking of the Internet and relaxation of pressure on newspapers, would be unwelcome.
The President is still talking of press freedom, notably in a speech last weekend, but he is unlikely to go beyond rhetoric at this point: his priority will be on the progress of the nuclear talks.