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Tehran Softens Image Abroad But Remains Hard-Line At Home

Experts say Iranian President Hassan Rohani may well be constrained by hard-line elements.
Soft on the outside, hard on the inside.

That may be the best way to describe the often startling contrast between Iran's current foreign and domestic policies.

Since taking office in August, President Hassan Rohani has won widespread praise for showing greater flexibility in nuclear talks with the international community.

The praise has come even from countries usually highly skeptical of Iran's readiness to solve the nuclear crisis through negotiations.

As U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said following this month's talks in Geneva between Tehran and the six world powers, "We are at a different point in this with a new government in place, and we are having a level of conversation that is different from what we had in the past."

But if such statements, echoed by the European Union and the UN's nuclear agency, have created the sense that the Iranian government is now far more ready to consider compromises than before, flexibility is not what characterizes its behavior at home.

Hadi Ghaemi, director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, says that hard-line forces which lost the June presidential election to Rohani have pushed back to make sure his softer approach begins and ends with foreign affairs.

"What we are seeing is that the political forces which lost in the presidential election are still very much in control of major branches of the state, such as the Judiciary, the armed forces, such as the Revolutionary Guards, and the intelligence and security branches, which are very powerful," Ghaemi says. "All of these groups are at the moment trying to use domestic repression to their advantage so that any kind of rapprochement in foreign policy does not undermine their power at home."

Can He Deliver?

The result is that the first three months of Rohani's administration have been marked by events that call into question his ability to deliver on campaign promises to end the "suppression and radicalism" of recent years.

Among his campaign pledges was the release of political prisoners, with strong suggestions that this would include Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi. Some lower-level prisoners have been released, but Musavi remains under house arrest and two of his daughters were allegedly beaten by security guards after a recent visit with their father. Karrubi is reportedly confined to an Intelligence Ministry safe house.

Similarly, hard-liners have shown their power by closing down a reformist newspaper this week for the first time since Rohani took office. Iran's state press watchdog shut the daily "Bahar" over an article seen as attacking the rule of religious figures. The censors said that undermined Islamic principles.

Scott Lucas, editor of EA Worldview, a specialist website on Iran and the Mideast, calls the closure of Bahar a clear message to Rohani's supporters not to expect more room for criticizing the ruling establishment:

"The head of the Judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, a very powerful man, pressed the advantage [following Bahar's shutdown] and said that any publication that took unacceptable political stances could be subject to punishment, i.e., suspension or a ban," Lucas says. "So he was laying out the warning, which was to forget everything (Rohani) said about censorship and opening up, we are still the ones in charge here."

Meanwhile, hardliners are stepping up their own challenge to Rohani's softer foreign policy image to ensure he gets only limited domestic political capital from it. Militant factions are reportedly going ahead with plans for the annual "Death to America" rally, set for November 4 to coincide with the 24th anniversary of the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Status Quo

Lucas says that there is little likelihood that the two faces of Iran -- soft on the outside, hard on the inside -- will change soon:

"Rohani right now is focused on his foreign policy; he is trying to get engagement forward. And I think others within the system are simply using their space to say there are limits on how far he can go on social questions," Lucas said. "The problem is that if Rohani challenges on these social questions, he risks losing his authority, which means he then loses the space he has on foreign policy. So, until we get a resolution of the nuclear question, until we get a real momentum behind that, I don't expect Rohani to take on a two-front campaign."

The Iranian regime provided a reminder of just how brutal it remains at home as it hanged 16 prisoners on October 26 in retaliation for a rebel attack that killed 14 border guards in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan. The mass execution mirrored the hanging of 11 alleged rebels following a bomb attack in the same province in 2010.

The jarring discrepancy between Iran's softening image and its hard reality may mean the world will have to get used to viewing Rohani's presidency through two different lenses: one for foreign policy, one for domestic. But it also suggests that the stakes in negotiating a solution to Iran's nuclear crisis may not be limited to nuclear concerns.

How much success Rohani eventually has in improving Iran's relations with the rest of the world will likely determine how much political capital he ultimately has for introducing a softer tone to domestic affairs as well.