Economic sanctions reinstated after the United States left the nuclear deal with Iran are designed to weaken Tehran's ability to control the population, and President Hassan Rouhani's administration is facing intensifying public and political pressure as the financial strain increases. Deteriorating economic conditions are creating an optimal environment for hard-line opponents to gain political advantage over Rouhani's moderate and reformist allies before elections in 2020 and 2021.
Iran's parliament this week has been actively questioning decisions made by President Hassan Rouhani's economic team. After they grilled — and impeached — Rouhani's labor and economic ministers, lawmakers summoned the president to parliament Aug. 28 to account for his administration's handling of the economy. After hearing his explanations on economic policy, lawmakers voted to reject Rouhani's approach to four of the five major policy areas they examined. In particular, his answers on the country's high unemployment rate and the rial's depreciation received harsh criticism.
Why It Matters
Although Rouhani's moderate and reformist allies predominate in parliament, bringing him to account for deteriorating economic conditions is seen as a way to assuage growing public anger. The U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is formally known, and its hard-line sanctions policy are accelerating Iran's economic downturn.
But even more important, Rouhani's conservative opponents are trying to increase their popularity while discrediting his allies to weaken any moderate or reformist movement that coalesces ahead of parliamentary elections in 2020 and presidential elections in 2021. Moderates and reformists have outperformed their conservative counterparts in the last two parliamentary elections.
What Happens Next?
Over the next few weeks, more Cabinet ministers will likely face parliamentary interrogation and possible impeachment. The leaders of the ministries of Education as well as of Mines, Energy and Trade will be next to face a possible ouster. Rouhani, though, does not face an immediate threat of impeachment. As Speaker Ali Larijani pointed out Aug. 29, parliament lacks the legal grounds to refer him to the judiciary for impeachment. The Iranian parliament's powers to do so are limited to two scenarios: If the president has either violated Iranian law or is not implementing it.
If Rouhani's opponents succeed in removing him from office, the question remains: Who could do a better job given the myriad problems Iran faces?
As economic conditions continue to decline and calls for impeachment intensify over the coming period, the first real sign of trouble for Rouhani may be formal complaints lodged against First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, who is largely in charge of formulating Rouhani's economic programs. It would take a two-thirds majority of parliament (and the approval of the supreme leader) to impeach the president. Only about a third of lawmakers signed onto the motion to summon Rouhani for questioning — for now far short of the impeachment threshold.
Ultimately, the country's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, controls Rouhani's fate. (In Iran's history, only one president has been impeached, and that came at the direction of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini in 1981.) Khamenei so far has shown no indication of wanting Rouhani gone. The supreme leader said last month that removing the president would "play into the enemy's hands."
Although the Iranian establishment may pile on the pressure, it is unclear whether Rouhani's opponents would seek to actually remove him from office. Whoever replaced him would immediately be burdened with responsibility for the country's economic woes and issues stemming from years of economic mismanagement. And as U.S. sanctions bite harder, those economic challenges will only become more difficult to effectively manage.