Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani is now officially sworn in for his second term in office. In a two-part “inauguration” ceremony initiated by the 78-year-old Supreme Leader’s kiss of approval, Rouhani entered a new four-year round that is shaping up to be starkly different than that of his first term.
Rouhani’s victory in May against Ayatollah Khamenei’s hand-picked nominee — Ebrahim Raisi — was a strong slap to the hardliner establishment in Iran. This alone has set forth a challenging course for the Iranian president who now has to juggle a delicate balance of power at home. On the other hand, unlike what he dealt with under the Obama administration, Rouhani will plausibly face four years of strong anti-Iran sentiments as seen in the past six months under a Trump presidency.
Since 2015, Rouhani’s image has domestically evolved from a moderate force and one close to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, into a “reformist” leader who managed to publicly polarize the country’s domestic political establishment — one that has marginalized the hardliners and die-hard supporters of the Revolution against the moderate voices, who have always struggled to cope with Iran’s “Principalist” establishment. For this, he was strongly criticized by the Supreme Leader — but managed to win re-election by an astonishing turn out of voters.
In addition, unlike his first four years in office, the 68-year-old president is alone on his island of reform and moderation. In March he lost his most influential and powerful backer — arguably Iran’s second most powerful man after the Supreme Leader — Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who died in a cardiac arrest. The rest of the reformist and moderate leaders either remain under house arrest or have zero political influence like former reformist President Mohammad Khatami who was nowhere to be found in Rouhani’s inauguration ceremony.
The 2015 historic nuclear accord between Iran and 6 other world powers — that helped circumvent a potential military confrontation with Iran among other regional mayhem — was achieved mainly through Washington’s nod of approval. Today, under President Trump’s leadership that nod is blurred within the belt way; and any potential discourse seems nonviable as the White House distances itself from Europe, Russia, and China who all continue to support the nuclear deal. In addition, the Trump administration has strongly aligned itself with Iran’s arch rival in the region — Saudi Arabia — which under the current crisis in dealing with Qatar further complicates matters at the Iran Desk in Washington.
In his latest line of foreign discourse, President Trump emphasized his abhorrence toward the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — an international agreement that cannot be broken by the United States alone. “I am going to say that I have no choice but to honor my predecessor’s deal. I think it is a horrible deal, a disgusting deal that I would have never made. It is an embarrassment to the United States of America and you can say it just the way I said it. I will say it just that way,” Trump told Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, as published by The Washington Post.
This is while the United States' diplomat in chief, Rex Tillerson recently acknowledged his difference of opinion with that of Trump. “He and I have differences of views on things like JCPOA and how we should use it,” adding that, “if we’re not having those differences, I’m not sure I’m serving him.”
While many in the Republican leadership do not want to engage in what may be another decade-long military intervention in the Middle East, Trump’s anti-Iran measures are indirectly strengthening what the moderate Iranian president fears at home — the hardliners. Despite their demise in number and age, the conservative hardliners and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hold some of Iran’s most powerful entities including much of the country’s oil and gas conglomerates as well as its banking system and communication infrastructures.
In his second term, President Rouhani will most certainly have to maintain a delicate equilibrium between his administration’s desire to open up Iran economically and politically, while preventing hardliners to arrogate authority by engaging in rogue behavior both domestically and abroad — including the recent missile tests that cost the new U.S. imposed sanctions against Iran.
Unlike a Rouhani versus Obama presidency, under a Rouhani-Trump duo, Iran’s president should keep a closer eye on those who’d benefit from Iran’s isolation both at home and abroad. Even the smallest error can cost a huge fire that could jeopardize the very minimal opening Iran gained through the nuclear deal. Any wrong move can also have major regional implications in Syria, Yemen, Iraq — and even the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that at the moment seem more far-fetched than ever.
Rouhani’s second term is more significant and more daunting than his first term. He now has to govern under the shadow on an excruciating hardliner watch but to also deliver his promises of reform to the 24 million people who voted for him and the millions of Iranian youth who are thirsty for a drop of economic, commercial, informational, and societal freedom and reform. Any attack on Rouhani’s government will only strengthen the powerful hardliner strands within the 80-million country, whose people have proven to favor moderation by re-electing Rouhani despite all challenges that remain.
Surely many in the West will argue that in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the president holds limited power given the autonomy of the Supreme Leader. However, there is a blind spot that can result in a more amicable outcome for all. And that is Washington’s opportunity to engage with the moderates in an effort to prevent the strengthening of rogue actors in Iran. This is of course if President Trump is at all interested in dialogue, stability, and peace in the region — if not, attacking Rouhani’s government from the start is the recipe to foster years of hostility that’ll only further destabilize the already-destroyed Middle East in the years to come.
Tara Kangarlou is an award-winning journalist who has has written, reported, and produced for CNN, CNN International, NBC Los Angeles, Al Jazeera America, Huffington Post, and Al Monitor. In 2016, she founded Art of Hope a non-profit 501(c)3 organization helping Syrian refugees overcome trauma, PTSD, and psychological wounds. She is currently working on her upcoming book on Iran. To read more of her reports, Click Here Now.
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