RFL/RE – President Hassan Rohani has defended his policies on the eve of the registration period for candidates in Iran’s presidential election in May, saying his administration has helped boost prosperity and chip away at obstacles to openness in Iranian society.
But the 68-year-old cleric and ally of reformers stopped short of announcing a reelection bid at his televised April 10 press conference, although aides have said in recent months that he will seek another four-year-term.
“We have a prosperous Iran and we will definitely have a better Iran in the next years,” Rohani said.
Rohani cited improvements in the economy, energy, health care, culture, and even Internet coverage in the country, which blocks access for many of its 83 million people to a long list of foreign websites.
He said his government has been working to improve the lives of the poor, the deprived, and the marginalized segments of Iranian society.
The president also took a shot at conservative critics he said were constantly spewing “black smoke,” and he hinted at obstacles in a system ultimately controlled by a supreme leader and other unelected officials, saying he was “not fully satisfied” and acknowledging that “some issues” are outside his government’s control.
Former reformist parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi
Under house arrest with fellow opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi since 2011
Rights activists say the country’s human rights situation has not significantly improved under Rohani and that attacks on the media and civil liberties have continued.
The conservative elections supervisor, the Guardians Council, has considerable scope to exclude would-be candidates and routinely disqualifies far more applicants than it allows onto ballots.
In a reference to the April 11-15 application period for candidates, Rohani said only, “If we wait for five days we will see who’s entering the vote.”
One formidable hard-line challenger emerged last week when, Ebrahim Raisi, a former prosecutor and rumored insider to succeed Iran’s supreme leader, announced his intention to seek the presidency.
Rohani derided conservative critics of his gamble in striking a nuclear deal with world powers in 2015 in exchange for sanctions relief — many of whom have said the hoped-for gains in trade and revenues have not materialized.
“We shouldn’t paint the future so dark,” he said, adding that efforts should be increased to attract foreign investment.
Iran has spent decades spurned diplomatically and economically by the West since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, and it continues to face U.S. and other sanctions over its alleged support for international terrorism, weapons programs, and its rights record.
The nuclear deal in 2015 was regarded by some as the start of a new chapter in Iran’s dealings with the West, a prospect that set Rohani starkly at odds with hard-line conservatives at home.
Iranian rivals have accused him of ignoring Iran’s national interests on the international scene and of overseeing the distribution of “astronomical salaries” for government employees while paying little attention to the plight of the poor at home.
In his April 10 appearance, Rohani belittled critics “upset” over deals in the works to purchase passenger jets from Western manufacturers like Boeing.
Rohani appears to face a new headwind out of Washington, too. U.S. President Donald Trump was sworn in in January vowing to “renegotiate” the Iranian nuclear agreement, which he called the “worst deal in history.” Almost immediately, his administration included Iranian nationals among those targeted by a controversial travel ban, and Trump rolled out fresh sanctions on people and companies suspected of ties to Iran’s missile program, among other things.
On April 10, Rohani condemned the U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base on April 7 that came in response to a suspected chemical attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun that killed dozens of people, including children.
The United States and other Western countries said the Khan Sheikhun attack was carried out by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and have called out Assad’s allies in the six-year war, Russia and Iran, over the tragedy.
Rohani — whose country has supplied military advisers and helped thousands of young men it calls “volunteers” join the fight for Assad in Syria — reiterated his call for an international investigation into the attack, which he claimed could have been carried out by “terrorists,” a term that officials in Tehran have used to refer to any armed groups opposing Assad.
Rohani accused the United States of damaging talks — already seemingly stalled — aimed at finding a peaceful solution in Syria, where more than 300,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Assad cracked down on demonstrators in 2011.
The Iranian president on April 10 also returned to one of the domestic issues that helped him get elected in 2013, saying it did not make sense for Iranians to be jailed for “supporting a view, or a party, or a faction.”
He argued that the Iranian society has become more open during his presidency — including universities, which came under intense pressure during the presidency of Rohani’s predecessor, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Still, critics say Rohani has done little to confront powerful hard-liners in charge of key institutions, including the Judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Rohani said he has ordered investigations into recent arrests that some have suggested are part of a pre-election crackdown by hard-liners.
The interior and intelligence ministers, the president said, were tasked with looking into last month’s arrest of several managers of reformist and pro-government channels on the Telegram app.