The number of hardliners in Iran is on the rise, according to the latest poll. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, appears to be preparing the social base so that a hardline president would replace President Hassan Rouhani after the sanctions are lifted by foreign powers. Khamenei seems to be achieving this by using Iranian media to slander the West and improve the image of hardline politicians. Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appears to be getting ready to take Rouhani's place, and is reportedly preparing his hardline platform to run in Iran's 2017 presidential elections.
Rouhani's popularity and standing are evidently not what they used to be. This seems to have come about largely because of changes in the economy. The overwhelming majority of Iranians believed in Rouhani's economic promises when they elected him; after the nuclear deal was settled, 63% of Iranians believed that they would witness improvements in the economy and living standards within a year. However, a new report shows that 74% of Iranians said that there have been no economic improvements in the last year.
A number of factors have slowed economic growth, including the high unemployment level, the state-owned and state-led economy, financial corruption at high levels, lack of an open market and business opportunities for the public, the increasing gap between the rich and poor, and the accumulation of wealth among the gilded circle in power and other major players -- such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the connected elite business class -- who hold control over major socio-political and economic sectors of Iran.
The Iranian government has also not done all that it could to help improve conditions. For example, after the flimsy and incomplete nuclear agreement, the Obama Administration immediately began transferring billions of dollars to Iran's Central Bank. One of the payments included $1.7 billion transferred in January 2016. Of this sum, $1.4 billion came from American taxpayers. Iran immediately increased its military budget by $1.5 billion from $15.6 billion to $17.1 billion, rather than investing it for creating jobs.
Khamenei has already begun his campaign of blaming the West for Iranian economic problems. He fails to acknowledge the true reason that Iranians are not benefiting from the lifting of sanctions. Instead, as is his method of operation, he blames the West so that he himself is never blamed or held accountable in the eyes of the public. He stated recently "Weren't the supposed sanctions lifted to change the life of the people? Is any tangible effect seen in people's life after six months?" Although Iran's oil exports have reached pre-sanctions levels, and although Iran is freely doing business on the state level, Mr. Khamenei claimed in a speech that, "the U.S. Treasury... acts in such a way that big corporations, big institutions and big banks do not dare to come and deal with Iran."
An official from the State Department said that Iran should not blame the US for companies not doing business with Iran. Most likely, large corporations are just not yet prepared to make deals with Iran.
Khamenei's rhetoric has a significant impact on public opinion in Iran. According to a poll, 75% of Iranians believe that the U.S. is to blame for Iran's stagnant economy. They believe that the U.S. has been creating obstacles to Iranian business with Western companies, and to Iran's ability to fully rejoin the global financial system.
It is true that since the nuclear deal, Iran's unemployment rate has increased from roughly 10.8% to 12%. During the course of Rouhani's presidency, the unemployment rate has increased by two percent. The government has also cut subsidies.
It is possible that Iran's problems trading with American corporations and rebuilding its economy are due to other Iranian leaders' rhetoric, the Iranian state-owned media narratives, and lack of clear understanding of the terms of the nuclear agreement among the general public. Approximately 65% of the population still watch only Iran's domestic news channels to gain information about the latest news in comparison to the 25.4% who use internet, and 18.2% who watch satellite television. Notably, the states viewed most unfavorably by the Iranian public are the Islamic State (97.6% very unfavorable), Saudi Arabia (81.3% very unfavorable), and the United States. The overwhelming majority of Iranians, roughly 80%, believe that it is very important that their country should continue developing its nuclear program.
The same state-run media that shapes the Iranians' views of the West also pushes them to favor hardline candidates. The new poll reveals that former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's popularity is increasing. Ahmadinejad previously mentioned that he was retiring from politics, but the latest signs indicate that he is repositioning himself to lead the Islamic Republic again. During his presidency, people enjoyed subsidies on petrol, gas and electricity, and his government paid monthly cash handouts of approximately $17 to everyone. In the next presidential race, the poll shows that Ahmadinejad now trails Rouhani by only 8 percentage points compared to 27 points in May 2015.
Finally, another intriguing finding is that the person who has the highest level of respect, "very favorable," among Iranians is General Qassem Soleimani, the head of IRGC-Qods Force (the external operations wing of the IRGC, which operates in foreign countries). His popularity has increased in the last year. This could be because he is portrayed by the Iranian media as the savior of the Shia in Iraq and Syria, a patriot, and the protector of Iranians from the Islamic State and other types of Sunni extremism. In general, the favorability of the high-profile, hardline and conservative politicians such as Muhammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Ali Larijani appears to have increased. These could threaten Rouhani's reelection.
Khamenei, his media outlets, and the IRGC generals appear to be preparing the platform for a hardline President who will pull out of the nuclear agreement. The new poll also shows that so far, their campaign has been successful.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council on the Middle East. He can be reached at Dr.firstname.lastname@example.org.