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Iranian Hardliners Block Rouhani's Promises of Greater Freedom

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani listens during a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sept. 23, 2014.

After a year in office, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has achieved a steady thaw in relations with the West but failed so far to deliver on campaign promises of more freedom at home.

On some significant indicators - the number of executions and political prisoners as well as press freedom - the pragmatic Rouhani has fared no better or even worse than his hardline predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, activists say.

But Rouhani's defenders say he appears to be single-mindedly pursuing a nuclear deal with the West, hoping that this would boost his political capital and allow him to take on the conservative forces which are blocking his domestic policies.

Rouhani won the 2013 election on promises to improve Tehran's hostile relationship with the outside world and to ease the political and social restrictions that irk many Iranians.

On the first he has made progress. Iran struck an interim agreement on its nuclear program with world powers last year. While a final settlement is far from certain, diplomats say both sides are pushing hard for a deal by a Nov. 24 deadline.

Among broader signs of a thaw, the United States informed Iran in advance of its intention to strike Islamic State militants in Syria, and Rouhani said a nuclear deal that ended Western sanctions against Tehran would allow deeper cooperation on regional peace and stability and fighting terrorism.

On Wednesday, he agreed on the need to improve relations with Britain during talks with Prime Minister David Cameron at the United Nations in New York, the highest level direct meeting between the two countries since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

However, Rouhani has nothing to show on his second campaign promise, said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “It's a combination of political and social freedom,” Ghaemi said. “The statements he had made were on policy on many, many fronts, none of which have come true.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed alarm at a reported increase in executions in Iran. According to Cornell University's database, there were between 624 and 727 last year, up from an estimated 314 to 580 in 2012.

In his annual report to the U.N. General Assembly on human rights in Iran, Ban said restrictions on freedom of expression continue to affect many areas of life.

Rouhani has the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in pursuing the nuclear deal and this has shielded him from criticism by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country's top military force. But this support has not extended to Rouhani's promises on domestic issues.

Among the most high-profile was an implicit pledge to resolve the house arrest of two candidates in a disputed 2009 presidential elections, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Yet both men, along with Moussavi's wife Zahra Rahnavard, remain under arrest. Karroubi has been hospitalized because of the inappropriate conditions of his detention, his wife Fatemeh said in an interview with the Saham News site this week.

Similarly, Rouhani's promise to push for more press freedom has fallen flat. In July, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh Salehi, who is also a journalist, were both detained and remain in custody with authorities providing no details as to why they are being held.

Pragmatic goals

Rouhani may be holding off from confronting his opponents on domestic policy in the hope of achieving some degree of success in the nuclear negotiations and an easing of the trade and financial sanctions which are badly hurting Iranians.

“He's willing to compromise a great deal in order to achieve what he thinks are pragmatic goals,” said Abbas Milani, the director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University. “At this moment he doesn't think that fighting for the release of Moussavi, for example, or for some of the human rights issues is high priority.”

But by gambling on the success of the nuclear talks rather than pushing domestic issues, Rouhani has left himself vulnerable to attacks from his opponents.

Last month, hardliners in parliament ousted Rouhani's Minister of Science for allowing the return of students and academics who had been banned from universities following mass protests linked to the 2009 election.

Rouhani himself has faced criticism even from some political allies for not showing up to parliament on the day the conservative bloc voted to remove the minister.

Hardliners are also fighting back against any attempt to ease restrictions on social freedoms. Last week, a number of young Iranians received suspended sentences of 6 to 12 months in jail and 91 lashes with a whip for making a video set to the song “Happy” by U.S. performer Pharrell Williams.

Government officials were offended by the clip, posted on the Internet in May, because it showed women without hijab dancing with men.

This week Iran's prosecutor-general and judiciary spokesman, hardline cleric Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, also threatened Rouhani's minister of communication with legal action if he did not shut down popular messaging apps Viber, What's App and Tango within a month. “Violators of the judiciary's orders at any level will be held accountable by law,” Ejehi said in a statement carried by a number of Iranian news sites.

Ejehi said the apps had been used to disseminate derogatory material about Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. The Revolutionary Guards arrested 11 people on Sunday because of jokes about Khomeini spread through messaging apps, the Khabar Online news site reported.

Rouhani has yet to respond to the attacks. “He has done no pushback,” said Ghaemi. “After one year, Rouhani's opponents who lost the election to him are actually involved more than ever in actively challenging him.”

The muted response contrasts to Rouhani's boisterous election campaign when he ran on a slogan offering a government of “hope,” winning more than 18 million votes.

The president appears to be asking his supporters to be patient. “I haven't forgotten anything and, thank God, my memory has been good and continues to be good,” he told state television earlier this year. “I know well what promises I have given and what I must do.”