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Embattled Rouhani: "If you Want to Summon Someone, Summon Me"

January 28, 2021
Hassan Jafari
7 min read
President Hassan Rouhani objected to the summoning of his Minister of Communications to the Prosecutor's Office, declaring at a cabinet meeting: "Increasing the bandwidth was my order"
President Hassan Rouhani objected to the summoning of his Minister of Communications to the Prosecutor's Office, declaring at a cabinet meeting: "Increasing the bandwidth was my order"
Rouhani also called on his critics to allow the government to complete its "half-finished work" in the remaining six months
Rouhani also called on his critics to allow the government to complete its "half-finished work" in the remaining six months

At a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, January 27, President Hassan Rouhani made a number of astonishing pronouncements on a range of topics. Seemingly more agitated than usual, the president held forth on such issues as the summoning of his Minister of Communications to the Prosecutor’s Office, decrying his “foul-mouthed” critics and seemingly alluding to the future of the JCPOA. What prompted this, and what was Rouhani getting at?


Chronicle of a Summoning Foretold

Rouhani’s diatribe focused in the main on his Minister of Communications and Information, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, having been summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office. News of this had broken in Iranian media on January 20, with Azari Jahromi reportedly having appeared in court and subsequently been released on bail.

It was alleged by both the media and Iranian officials that the reason for the summoning was the Ministry having not filtered the social media platform Instagram. Under mounting pressure for a proper explanation, Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri (himself reportedly a key proponent of blocking Instagram) clarified that the reason for the summons was not just Instagram, but “other complaints”.

Immediately after these remarks, the head of public relations of the Ministry of Communications tweeted that the prosecutor was referring to "numerous complaints", including those of students and residents of Ahvaz. This, of course, only muddied the waters further. This is the first time direct judicial action has been taken against a member of Rouhani’s cabinet, and many politicians have been quick to react.

Several members of Rouhani's cabinet, including Mahmoud Vaezi, the head of the president's office, and government spokesman Ali Rabiei and pro-government media outlets, spoke in defense of Azari Jahromi's record. On Wednesday, Rouhani did the same, albeit in unusual words.

“Increasing the bandwidth was my order,” he said. "No one should prosecute the Minister of Communications. If you want to try someone, try me. And bandwidth means fighting corruption. If you want to summon someone in connection with the fight against corruption, you must summon me.”

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaeili then accused Rouhani of giving “the wrong address", and said the summoning of the minister "had nothing to do with bandwidth". He also advised Rouhani that if he intended to respond, "it would also be good to explain to the people about the devaluation of the national currency, the living conditions of the people, the control of the market, and the prices of chicken and eggs."

But Jamal Hadian, head of public relations at the Ministry of Communications, subsequently said Esmaeili's remarks had themselves been "untrue". In fact, he said, the accusations against Azari Jahromi did include an increase of bandwidth: “According to the fifth page of the interrogation papers, these charges have indeed been attributed to Azari Jahromi."

Some political analysts believe that the judiciary, or at least part of it, is trying to advance its faction's political standing in the months leading up to the June presidential election. This move could have the effect of not only tightening restrictions on Iranian cyberspace, but increasing the pressure on those close to Rouhani. If the president seemed especially angry on Wednesday, it might be because he suspects the same.

In addition, Rouhani could well be anticipating further pressure to come. Political opponents have said Rouhani is privately outraged by several recent court rulings, including the sentencing of Mehdi Jahangiri, the brother of the first vice president, to two years in prison, and the jailing of Mir Ali Ashraf Poori Hosseini, the former head of the Privatization Organization, for 15 years.


Government versus Parliament

Clashes between the government and the Iranian parliament have increased exponentially over the past two months. Barely a day goes by without accusations and ridicule being lobbed by one decision-making body at the other in the media.

The highest proportion of MPs’ criticism of the government has recently related to the 2021-22 budget bill. Meanwhile, the recent debacle involving the MP for Sabzevar slapping a traffic warden has provided the government to temporarily switch from a defensive position to launching attacks on parliament.

But moments after Rouhani's speech on Wednesday, a new torrent of criticism of him and his cabinet was unleashed by several MPs, who tweeted in unison using common keywords and hashtags such as "rent-width", "trial" and "corruption." The MP Mojtaba Zolnuri wrote: "Incidentally, the only issue over which you cannot be summoned and tried is this one, because you did not fight against #corruption, and thank God, your record in this regard is completely clean and white!"

Nizamoddin Mousavi, another MP, wrote: "No one will be prosecuted over bandwidth. If you’re really ready to answer, do not waste time and space and come to the parliament next week to answer the questions of 200 members of parliament about the poor economic and living conditions of the people and the ‘width’ of the rents." Mohsen Dehnavi and Ahmad Naderi, meanwhile, both sardonically used the term “rent width” to criticize Rouhani, with Naderi referring to a "state-owned stock exchange casino" while the MP Fatemeh Ghasempouz also ridiculed the president's "empty claims" as an "illusory budget".

Perhaps most notable was the tweet of Tehran MP Mojtaba Rezakhah, the son-in-law of well-connected businessman Habibollah Bourbour, who regularly bankrolls conservative candidates. Rezakhak’s missive contained a proliferation of perjorative hashtags: "Mr. President, instead of #bandwidth, you should answer about #rent_width. The minimum rent hidden in #Jahangiri's_dollar is 500,000 billion tomans. I repeat: 500,000 billion tomans! #Jahangiri's_class."

Despite all the noise, the budget bill remains the biggest sticking-point between Rouhani’s government and the legislature. In his speech on Wednesday, Rouhani had also said: "Tell me, how much has our general budget, which was 841 trillion tomans, increased under this parliament's budget committee? How did the budget increase, and where did they increase it?"

The Parliamentary Budget Committee has published the latest changes to the 2021-22 budget bill on its website. The changes are themselves politically-infused. A few days ago, Speaker of the Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf accused Rouhani of exploiting the foreign currency exchange rate difference in “unknown places” and claimed that his government were "preventing such things in parliament."

Naturally, Rouhani's critics outside the halls of parliament have also criticized his economic stance. Among them is Ezatolah Zarghami, the former head of the IRIB and one of the possible candidates in this year’s presidential election, who declared that he also opposes the filtering of Instagram. "Mr. Rouhani!” he declared. “If you are interested in being summoned, you should be summoned because of the stock market catastrophe, the fall in the value of the national currency, the 4,200-toman currency tragedy, the poor living standard of the people, the inability to control rents and housing prices, and the three million students without tablets; not the bandwidth!"


The Fate of the JCPOA

At the meeting on Wednesday, Rouhani also made a more cryptic remark. "I ask those who are angry or in rivalry with the government to allow us to do our half-finished work in the remaining six months," he said.

The most important "half-finished work" of Rouhani and his government is arguably the JCPOA. The president desperately needs to bring the US back to the nuclear deal and so as not to end his government on the current low note. But on the other hand, best to save the most important would-be achievement of his eight-year career until his last days in office. Both his own future political career and that of his faction are inextricably tied to the JCPOA's future.

To this end, Rouhani’s administration has repeated the same three core demands in recent days: the "rapid return” of the United States to the JCPOA; the lifting of sanctions imposed under Trump; and no further demands being made “beyond the JCPOA”. On Wednesday, Rouhani reiterated again: “We waited, with lots of patience. The Europeans promised but did not act. You go back to your commitments; in the next hour, we will return to ours."

The Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has also made exactly the same three demands in a note published in Foreign Affairs. He was followed by Majid Takht-e Ravanchi, the Islamic Republic's representative to the United Nations, in a note published in The New York Times.

Fewer than ten days have passed since the inauguration of Joe Biden as President of the United States. But the Rouhani administration may have good reason to feel uncertain: in his first press conference as US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken said the United States would return to the JCPOA when Iran resumes full implementation of its commitments, but also that Washington would seek a "longer-term, stronger agreement" that addresses other "deeply troubling" issues.


Related coverage:

New Poll Shows Iranians May Want Ahmadinejad Back as President

US-Iran Relations: A Long Way From There, Experts Agree

Rouhani's Team Cautiously Welcomes Biden's Victory but Khamenei Insists US “Enmity” Will Continue




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