Iran protests could hurt clerics but Rouhani has most to lose, say insiders
Iran protests could hurt clerics but Rouhani has most to lose, say insiders
While several senior officials said there was concern that prolonged unrest would damage the legitimacy and influence of the country’s religious leaders, few insiders see the unrest as an existential threat to that leadership, which has ruled since the 1979 revolution and is now controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority in Iran’s system of dual clerical and republican rule.
The biggest loser, they say, is likely to be Rouhani, who is much more closely tied to the country’s economic policies.
“Of course, Rouhani and his government will have less power afterward, especially because his economic policy was criticized during the unrest,” said political analyst Hamid Farahvashian.
“He will be a lame-duck president and Khamenei will have more power.”
Much of the protesters’ anger has focused on what Rouhani and his government have failed to deliver: An economic boom promised as the payoff for the 2015 deal that curbed Iran’s disputed nuclear program in return for world powers lifting sanctions.
Protesters are angry that Iran’s youth unemployment rate is edging toward 30 percent, want higher wages and an end to alleged graft. They have chanted slogans against all of Iran’s leaders, including the clerical elite, and attacked police vehicles, banks and mosques as the unrest widened.
“The continuation of the protests will lead to a legitimacy crisis,” said one senior official close to Rouhani, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“People have economic demands... of course these demands should be taken seriously... of course the establishment should listen to the people, but all these can be discussed in a calm atmosphere,” the official said.
Some conservatives have pushed for a hard-line approach, even though bloodshed could fuel more protests in the largest wave of demonstrations since nationwide unrest in 2009.
“So far, security forces have not tried to prevent the demonstrations... but this will change if (Khamenei) calls for an end to the street protests and demonstrators defy his call,” said one former Iranian official from the reformist camp.
Even if the unrest is quelled, the demands of tens of thousands of restless working-class youths who have taken to the streets are unlikely to dissipate.
Khamenei spoke publicly for the first time about the crisis on Tuesday, accusing Iran’s enemies of stirring unrest but saying no more. A statement on his website said he would address the nation about the events “when the time is right.”
The protesters have little chance of toppling the clerical leaders, who appear to be retaining control of the military, police, and security forces and have no compunction about using them, according to one US official following the developments.
Rouhani, who was elected in 2013, is more exposed. He is seen as a pragmatist at odds with Iran’s hard-liners and has said in response to the protests that Iranians have a right to criticize the authorities.
But he has a fight on his hands because of growing resentment over high prices and allegations of corruption.
“His power is limited in Iran’s ruling system. Public discontent is increasing ... people are losing their faith in the establishment system,” a third Iranian official said. “The leaders are well aware of this fact and its dangerous consequences.”
US officials fear the likeliest outcome of the protests is discrediting what one called Rouhani’s “moderate brand of moderation” and a harsher crackdown by the clerical authorities.
“It’s an open question whether Rouhani ever intended to keep any of his promises, but he hasn’t delivered, especially on the economic front, and that means he has no popular support and is expendable to Khamenei,” said a second US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
“He’s likely to be one of the casualties, though maybe not immediately.”
Rouhani has blamed his predecessor and the US, Iran’s long-time adversary, for the economy’s shortcomings.
But his government has also backtracked on planned fuel price rises and promised more jobs.
Rouhani may need to spend more money to create more employment if he is to ease discontent and could risk antagonizing powerful interests if he tries to address allegations of corruption.
His vulnerability and the deep divisions in Iran’s hierarchy have fueled suspicions among some of his sympathizers that conservative rivals may have played a hand in the crisis.
“It was a coup against Rouhani and his achievements ... The aim was to harm Rouhani,” said Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst close to the pro-reform movement.
But a fourth official in Tehran said the nationwide protests had united Iran’s leadership.
“At this point, it is not important whether a political faction initiated the unrest to harm the rival group,” the official said. “The unrest was hijacked by our enemies ... that is why all factions have united to protect the Islamic Republic.”
Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights
- Regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside
- In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control
BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces unleashed hundreds of missiles on an opposition-held area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Sunday, activists said, the latest phase in an offensive to clear southern Syria of insurgents.
The regime’s push came after it had secured control of most of Daraa province in an offensive that began in June. On Sunday, the first batch of armed fighters and their families left the city of Daraa, the provincial capital, in buses that would take them to the opposition-held Idlib province in the north.
Similar deals in other parts of Syria resulted in the evacuation of thousands of opposition fighters and civilians — evacuations that the UN and rights groups have decried as forced displacement.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said Sunday the success in driving the opposition out of Daraa embodies the will of his army and allied forces to “liberate all of Syrian territories” of “terrorism.”
In recent months and backed by Russian air force, the Syrian regime has restored control of over 60 percent of previously opposition-held territory across the country.
Assad spoke during a meeting on Sunday with visiting Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hossein Jaberi Ansari. Assad’s office said the two agreed that the “elimination of terrorism in most of the Syrian territory has laid the most appropriate ground to reach results at the political level” that could put an end to Syria’s war.
Syria’s regime refers to all armed opposition groups as “terrorists” and accuses the West, Turkey, Israel and regional countries of supporting them.
The statement came a day before President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are to meet in Finland. Syria is expected to feature highly on the agenda. Russia is a major Assad ally.
In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control. Daraa, which lies on a highway linking Damascus with Jordan, was the cradle of the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Since early Sunday, regime forces turned their missiles toward a stretch of land controlled by the armed opposition in northern Daraa and the countryside of adjacent Quneitra.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside, about 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, from the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The Observatory said government forces advanced on Massharah, a village in Quneitra, and rebels fought back in intense clashes that killed several pro-government fighters. The pro-Syrian regime Central Military Media said a number of insurgents were killed in the clashes.
The Observatory reported airstrikes in Massharah, the first in over a year to hit the Quneitra countryside. It also reported airstrikes in a nearby village in northern Daraa, where regime forces have been trying to retake a key hill there after failing to reach a deal with the fighters. Capturing the hill would enable them to advance on militants in the area linked to Daesh.
Daraa activist Abou Mahmoud Hourani said an estimated 400 members of the armed opposition and their families will be evacuated out of Daraa.
Pro-regime TV Al-Ikhbariya said 10 buses carrying 407 people left for northern Syria.
The station said the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people was likely to be completed by Sunday.