In late 2015, Rouhani succeeded in negotiating a nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the US and five other world powers, and immediately afterwards stressed his hope to use the same method to achieve a national deal – or what he called a “domestic JCPOA.” Now where does Rouhani stand? His American counterpart and the Republican Party are desperately looking for a pretext to scrap the nuclear deal and are openly talking about regime change in Iran. He also has to face Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has a hammer in hand and treats every issue like a nail. Rouhani’s domestic rivals are getting bolder and harsher to undermine his authority at every passing opportunity, as if they had not just recently lost both presidential and city council elections.
Add to this mix Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has been creating new challenges for Rouhani since spring.
The quarrelsome culture of politics is nothing new in Iran. Since 1997—and reformist Mohammad Khatami’s presidency—society has witnessed fervent public debates and fierce argumentation between the two rival political camps. But today, this confrontation has different symptoms.
First, it has become ubiquitous. Unlike in the past, almost every public policy, persona, and even fact is grounds for contention. Second, it has become more direct and blatant. For centuries, Iran’s rhetorical culture has relied on figures of speech such as allusions and innuendos to make confrontations indirect and subtle. But now, adversaries do not shy away from openly criticizing and lambasting one another. Lastly, if in the past it was the rank and file who feuded while leaders and generals watched from a distance, now the heads directly challenge one another. They even use their social media accounts to respond to one another to the point that Ali Motahari, the outspoken Tehran lawmaker, mockingly said that it would be “better to talk face-to-face.”
The majority of Iranian pundits and politicians from both sides of the aisle argue, at least publicly, that this amount of contentious debate is not healthy for the country. Regardless, it is a safe bet to assume that Iranians will continue to watch this political reality show where different parties and factions engage in the war of words while talking about the necessity of maintaining “unity” and “solidarity.”
The fact that political actors continue their engagement in verbal contention does not necessarily indicate a sign of internal weakness or an inability to recognize looming external threats. On the contrary, it could suggest that Iran’s political system has gained enough maturity and capacity to handle such disputation while closely monitoring perils from abroad. After all, the US is dealing with the same symptoms of impasse and cantankerous politics, but no one is predicting imminent collapse.
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