Rouhani Impeachment Calls Divide Experts

By Natasha Phillips

28 Feb – Calls from Iran’s conservative lawmakers to impeach President Hassan Rouhani over the country’s economic crisis have met with conflicting reactions from Middle East analysts in London and Washington.

The motion to impeach Iran’s president was launched by conservative cleric Mojtaba Zolnour and has gathered 18 signatures, according to an interview with Zolnour published by official media outlet Iran Online. Zolnour told the media outlet that he had been promised at least 80 signatures by parliamentarians, who then chose to give verbal consent rather than sign the document. Lawmakers told Zolnour that there was a problem with the motion, though no further details were given. Parliamentarians also told Zolnour that they would vote against Rouhani if the motion was to prevail.

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” align=”center” lightbox=”off” caption=”Mojtaba Zolnour. Source: Kayhan London” captionposition=”center” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Motions to impeach a sitting president in Iran are allowed under Article 89 of the Iranian Constitution, which also allows members of parliament to interrogate the Council of Ministers or an individual minister on any official matter. The motion requires signatures from one-third of lawmakers in order to be presented to the majles (parliament). If the motion meets the number of signatures required the president must attend parliament within a month of the motion being passed and offer an explanation of the issue in full.

Dr. Farrokh Zandi, Director of International Business Designation at the Schulich School of Business in Ontario, Canada and head of the Economy Research Group at the Iran Phoenix Project based in Washington, spoke to Kayhan Life about what he felt were the underlying reasons for the call to resign:

“The promise of great benefits stemming from the 2015 nuclear deal never reached much of the Iranian public. As such, calls for President Rouhani’s resignation, though not new, have been escalating recently. Fighting between parties and factions, and tensions between the so-called moderates and hardline forces also are not new. This time the difference is in the depth of the crisis that Iran’s economy is facing.”

Experts say impeaching President Rouhani could prove problematic. Iran’s parliament is dominated by Reformists and moderates, so attempts at unseating Iran’s president would be unlikely to succeed.

Alex Vatanka, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington specializing in Iranian domestic and regional policies, told Kayhan Life that impeachment was not a realistic objective for Iran’s hardliners: “There is no sign that impeachment can succeed, and no sign that Iran’s Supreme Leader has any desire to see Rouhani removed. That also tallies with the last 30 years of [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei’s treatment of presidents who have served under him. Khamenei often falls out with his presidents, and he has fallen out with Rouhani in the past, but he doesn’t want to see chaos in the system and would rather have the problems managed.”

While hard-liners and clerics say they want Rouhani to step down over claims that Iran’s economy has been mismanaged by the government, Vatanka believes the pressure on the president to resign is linked to political in-fighting and a jostle for power. Vatanka told Kayhan Life that the President’s Chief of Staff said those calling for Rouhani’s resignation were allies of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, making the tensions political rather than ideological: “What is happening is more to do with people looking to the next presidential elections, so damaging Rouhani as the figurehead is part of that process.”

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” align=”center” lightbox=”off” caption=”Hassan Rouhani, giving a speech in Iran’s majlis. Source: Kayhan London” captionposition=”center” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Analysts say the surprise resignation on Monday of Iran’s Foreign Minster Mohammad Javad Zarif may also be down to increasing political pressure from hardliners after the collapse of the nuclear deal of which Zarif was the architect. The president’s Chief of Staff, Dr. Mahmoud Vaezi, categorically denied the suggestion that Zarif had formally resigned, telling his Twitter followers on Monday that the president had not accepted the resignation. Rouhani rejected Zarif’s resignation on Wednesday in a letter published on Iran’s state news agency IRNA.

Hamed Mohammadi, Kayhan London correspondent and author, told Kayhan Life that Zarif’s resignation was not connected to the calls for Rouhani to be impeached: “It could, however, represent a unified front against hardliners who seek to exclude Rouhani. It may well be that Zarif just wanted to send a message: if you put too much pressure on us, we’ll react too,” Mohammadi said. 

On whether or not Rouhani knew about Zarif’s resignation when it happened, Mohammadi told Kayhan Life, “It’s not clear whether the president was aware at the time but ultimately it makes no difference to the end result. Zarif staying in office is good news for moderates and his network of supporters on social media channels who view his position in office as important even if moderates like Zarif have not been terribly efficient in the past.”

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” align=”center” lightbox=”off” caption=”Hassan Rouhani (R) and Javad Zarif ( L ) awaiting Armenian prime minister, 27/02/19, Tehran, Iran. Kayhan London ” captionposition=”center” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

As Rouhani’s second term comes to an end, the president is likely to be given a position in the regime which he could hold for the rest of his lifetime, Vatanka told Kayhan Life. He believes Rouhani could replace Khamenei as Supreme Leader in what has become a very different political landscape over the last few years: 

“Rouhani could be a successor to Khamenei as the next Supreme Leader, and I think he could take Iran in a reformist direction. It’s a practical strategy and he needs to be pragmatic. However Rouhani doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to reform, so he may move to the right over time. The bottom line is, realities on the ground in Iran point to the status quo continuing not being a viable option, so Iran’s head will have to focus on the economy. Everyone recognizes the need for deep structural reform.” 

Speaking to Kayhan Life, Alireza Nader, the CEO of the New Iran Foundation — a non-profit organization focused on Iran research and analysis based in Washington  — suggested that Iran’s president should step down himself: “I believe Rouhani should resign. I also believe the entire leadership of the Islamic Republic should resign and step aside in light of the disaster they’ve created for the Iranian people.”