Rohani’s second-term curse
In the United States, legend has it that presidents suffer from a so-called second-term curse. It is said to make them less successful in their second term than in their first. In Iran, this is not legend but fact. And it is a particularly dire one for President Hassan Rohani, whose difficulties are set to be compounded by a power struggle in Tehran as political factions prepare themselves for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s successor.
Khamenei’s second term in office ended badly in 1989 when he tried to defuse the diplomatic crisis between Iran and the European Union by offering to accept Salman Rushdie’s apologies for the distress caused by his controversial novel The Satanic Verses. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini reacted to this act of clemency by issuing a written statement publicly humiliating Khamenei: “Even if Rushdie repents and becomes the ascetic of the age, all Muslims are obliged to send him to hell by all means available!”
As for former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, he too went off the rails in his second term (1993-1997). Khamenei, who by that time had solidified his position as supreme leader, effectively blocked the Rafsanjani government’s attempt to liberalise the economy. The hapless former President Mohammad Khatami’s attempts at liberalising Iran’s political system failed in both his first and second terms in office (1997-2005), making his entire presidency seem ill-omened. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fared no better, falling from grace in his second term as president (2009-2013) after Khamenei took note of the ambitious and independent-minded leader’s penchant for bypassing other parts of the system, including the supreme leader.
Rohani appears to be no different from his predecessors. On May 19, he was reelected president with 57.14% of the vote. His victory was a crushing blow to Ebrahim Raisi, the main challenger who was widely believed to be Khamenei’s favourite for president and also as a potential supreme leader.
Khamenei is, of course, the one behind Rohani’s difficulties. When he is gone, Rohani will resort to the populist policies he has increasingly been offering. But Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are wary of tinkering with the system too much for fear of a Soviet-style collapse.
Rohani’s relations with Khamenei and the IRGC are on a dangerous trajectory. On June 8, less than a month after the presidential election, Khamenei declared war on Rohani. Addressing the country’s youth, the supreme leader said: “Whenever you feel that there is something wrong with the central organisation and that it cannot work properly, you are free to fire at will. Under such circumstances, you are free to decide, to think, to move and to act.”
Khamenei elaborated on his criticism of Rohani on June 12, accusing him of “polarising society” and warned against repeating the “experiences from 1980.” This was a reference to the political crisis leading to impeachment of President Abolhassan Banisadr, who went into exile in France.
Undeterred by Khamenei’s statements, Rohani delivered a key speech to businessmen in June in which he criticised what he described as the IRGC’s parasitical role in Iran’s economy. He said: “The intention was to hand over the economy to the people, and the government should abstain from economic activity. What did we do? In parts, we have transferred the economy from an unarmed part of the government to an armed part of the government! This is no privatisation!” He went on to describe the private sector’s fear of “that part of the government which is not only armed, but also has media and everything in its power and no one dares to compete with them.”
Less than 24 hours after Rohani’s speech, the IRGC retaliated. At the Quds [Jerusalem] Day rally in Tehran on June 23, Rohani was faced with an angry mob screaming: “Death to the hypocrite,” a title usually reserved for the Mojahedin-e Khalq organisation, and “Death to American cleric.”
Rohani tried to deescalate the conflict with the IRGC and hosted Major-Generals Mohammad-Ali Jafari and Qassem Soleimani, as well as other leading commanders on July 24, offering economic privileges in return for political equilibrium. But Rohani’s concessions are unlikely to satisfy the Guards, who in tandem with Khamenei will see to it that Rohani falls prey to the second-term curse.