Coronavirus Crisis Endangers Iranian President Rohani's Political Health

With the Iranian economy plummeting to new lows, many lawmakers are targeting the president ahead of next year’s election – and even the supreme religious leader isn’t immune to criticism

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
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Iranian President Hassan Rohani speaking during a video conference call with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Tehran, July 1, 2020.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani speaking during a video conference call with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Tehran, July 1, 2020.Credit: OFFICIAL PRESIDENTIAL WEBSITE/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.

Under the headline “A Look at Iran’s Economy: Challenges and Strategies,” the Iranian parliament’s research institute recently issued a comprehensive report on the Iranian economy over the past several years.

The gloomy report, widely publicized in the Iranian media, doesn’t present any new conclusions or facts. The high inflation and unemployment, the dramatic plunge in the scope of oil exports and the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran have already been covered and analyzed from every angle.

What’s new is the timing of its publication. The campaign against President Hassan Rohani, who has been marked as a clear political target, is at its height, and will continue to heat up as the date of the presidential elections – expected in June 2021 – draws closer.

Rohani is facing a parliament that relies on an absolute majority of conservative lawmakers, including many young people – the next generation of politicians. They are ready to get rid of Rohani now, before his term is over. They have the support of supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who stated last week: “If we can’t get control of the coronavirus, the economic situation will worsen.”

Pedestrians wearing face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, walking along a Tehran street, June 28, 2020.
Pedestrians wearing face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, walking along a Tehran street, June 28, 2020.Credit: AFP

This is a seemingly obvious statement that doesn’t need to be explained. But it was also a poisoned arrow aimed at Rohani, who is responsible for dealing with the coronavirus crisis – which is only getting worse. The death toll in Iran has skyrocketed to some 11,000 people, with 230,000 infected (the highest figure in the Middle East).

Parliamentary mobilization against Rohani was reinforced last week when the heads of parliamentary committees threatened to summon the president for questioning about his policy if some miracle does not occur to revive the country’s economy and heal its citizens.

In a letter, they reminded Rohani that he has sworn allegiance to the constitution and must implement the clause that guarantees proper housing and a job for every worker. “We ask you to look at the faces of the kids who are rummaging in the trash to find food and those who are working at an early age. ... Are you aware of the prices of basic products? Do you know that the food purchases of a clerk, teacher or employee are less than what they need to survive?” several legislators said.

This is not the first time criticism has been heard against the president. However, its consistency and the parliamentary mobilization – led by the new speaker, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who seeks to run for president – pose a threat to Rohani. Questioning by Parliament is a preliminary step toward impeachment, and although it is assumed that the supreme leader will not allow Rohani to be sacked before the end of his term, this time Khamenei is also under attack.

One of Iran’s most prominent and influential religious scholars, Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, published an open, accusatory letter to Khamenei last week, stating: “This situation cannot continue. Parents fear for their children’s future and many are dissatisfied with the political and economic situation. ... Numerous other experts should be allowed to criticize this method of government and call for reforming it without fearing possible consequences.”

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf greeting fellow lawmakers after being elected as parliament speaker at the Iranian parliament in Tehran, May 28, 2020.
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf greeting fellow lawmakers after being elected as parliament speaker at the Iranian parliament in Tehran, May 28, 2020.Credit: STRINGER / AFP

Khoeiniha has a glorious revolutionary history. He was part of the group that planned the operation to take U.S. Embassy staffers hostage in 1979, holding them for 444 days. He is part of the left-wing branch of religious scholars, editing a critical journal named Salam that was shut down in 1999 – a move that brought tens of thousands of students out to the streets.

It isn’t known how the regime will treat him after his letter, but he is not alone. A group of religious scholars from the city of Qom see Khamenei as an unworthy leader, one who doesn’t meet the criteria set by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for the position of supreme leader.

The dialogue of threats is continuing as the Iranian rial has plummeted to a historic low – over 190,000 rials to the dollar late last month, compared to 32,000 rials to the dollar in 2015 when the nuclear agreement was signed. The volume of oil sales is around 200,000 barrels per day, compared to 2 million barrels after the agreement was signed.

While the regime is trying to circumvent the U.S. sanctions by selling oil to Venezuela and setting up an oil pipeline that bypasses the Strait of Hormuz – in preparation for a day when it may not be able to move tankers through it – these measures cannot make up for the huge losses.

A man, wearing a protective mask due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, checking the currency exchange rates as he walks in the Iranian capital Tehran, June 22, 2020.
A man, wearing a protective mask due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, checking the currency exchange rates as he walks in the Iranian capital Tehran, June 22, 2020.Credit: AFP

An overland bypass pipeline, one-third of which has already been built, will require considerably more money invested before it can function as an alternative, and the oil exports to Venezuela are more a symbolic thumbing of the nose at the Americans than a serious income channel.

Simultaneously, a dialogue of the deaf is taking place between the U.S. administration and the Iranian one, with U.S. President Donald Trump praising Tehran early last month over the release of a U.S. prisoner who had been incarcerated for more than two years – the second time in six months the Iranians released an American prisoner. He also tweeted a message to Iran: “Don’t wait until after U.S. Election to make the Big deal. I’m going to win. You’ll make a better deal now!” In other words, come to the table to renegotiate the nuclear deal on America’s terms.

Iran has responded that negotiations will only take place after the United States apologizes and compensates Iran for the sanctions damage. In about four months, it will become clear whether Iran has missed making a big deal with Trump or whether it will get a new U.S. president who is ready to return to the existing nuclear deal.

Until then, Iran will have to continue breathing through its remaining economic ventilators.

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