Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech in June under portraits of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, and Iran's founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Internal political divisions are expected to harm Rouhani's standing with Gulf Arab neighbors, with whom he wants to build better relations. (Atta Kenare / Getty Images)
DUBAI — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is facing an uphill battle in winning the trust of his Arab neighbors due to the raging political conflict between his administration and hardliner politicians in Tehran. But he still has the upper hand in nuclear talks domestically, experts say.
Political hardliners in Iran have intensified their attacks by ousting Science, Research, and Technology Minister Reza Faraji-Dana amid conflict over Rouhani’s approach to economic, social and cultural issues.
In recent months, a core of hardline parliamentarians belonging to the Endurance Front have led the opposition against Faraji-Dana. Last summer, the same group blocked Rouhani’s previous nominee for the same post, Jafar Towfighi, mainly on grounds that he had held the same post under former President Mohammad Khatami.
Iran analysts believe the battles between the two camps have weakened Rouhani’s image in the Middle East.
Ariane Tabatabai, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said Rouhani has made it clear that a fresh start in Iran’s relations with its neighbors is one of his administration’s key priorities, and the Arab states in the Gulf are particularly important.
“It depends on the Arab countries,” she said. “Certain countries will continue not to trust Iran and will likely become very vocal if a [nuclear] deal is reached in November. This is the case of Saudi Arabia.”
Internal battles make it more difficult for Rouhani to gain the trust of his Arab neighbors, said Dina Esfandiary, research associate at the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Leaders of the [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries will see Rouhani as powerless and unable to control his internal foes,” she said. “They do not see the point in having good relations with only part of the government, and especially the part that is constantly being attacked.”
Despite that, the recently appointed Iranian ambassador to Riyadh, Hossein Sadeghi, has served as a diplomat in Kuwait and the UAE during Khatami’s administration.
A visit Aug. 26 by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian was his first order of business, establishing the highest profile visit of an Iranian diplomat since Rouhani’s election.
Riyadh-based Iranian affairs expert Mohammed al-Sulaimi told al-Arabiya news channel on Aug. 25 that he expects the discussion of Abdollahian and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal to focus on the Islamic State and the Yemeni Houthi rebels.
“The two sides have conflicting stances regarding the situation in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon,” he said.
Tabatabai said that the Islamic State issue will come into play, as nearly all states in the region have an interest in stopping the group.
“So far, they haven’t been able to coordinate their efforts, but if [the Islamic State] continues as they have, galvanizing tens of thousands of combatants and taking over the entire Levant, both Saudi Arabia and Iran, particularly, will have to seriously contemplate collaborative efforts to stop them regardless of wider divergent strategic interests,” she said.
With regard to the P5+1 nuclear talks, hardliners will have little influence, Tabatabai and Esfandiary concluded.
“With the supreme leader backing the nuclear talks, the hardliners have been unable to pressure the government as much as they would like to on the issue,” Tabatabai said.
However, the assault by the hardliners on Rouhani’s administration and activities will continue to intensify in the next few months until the November deadline for the negotiations, Esfandiary said.
“Hardliners in Tehran have been able to regroup after their defeat in the last elections and aim to discredit the president and his team, and derail the nuclear talks because they stand to gain from the current state of affairs. The hardliners have gained some ground in the past few weeks,” she said. “But Rouhani and his administration have not yet been prevented from pursuing the nuclear talks wholeheartedly for example.” ■