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Iran's parliament delivers rare rebuke to embattled President Rouhani

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech in Tehran, Iran on Monday, Aug. 6, 2018.

IRANIAN PRESIDENCY OFFICE VIA AP

By TAMER EL-GHOBASHY | The Washington Post | Published: August 28, 2018

Iranian lawmakers issued a rare rebuke of President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday, rejecting his plans to mitigate an economic crisis that has been exacerbated by the United States' pullout from the 2015 nuclear deal and subsequent reimposition of sanctions.

The extraordinary parliamentary vote was the latest blow for Rouhani, who has faced widespread anger and lawmakers' dismissal of key ministers over the failure of the nuclear deal and the fallout from the renewed U.S. economic sanctions, which have driven Iran's currency to historic lows.

Facing a raft of questions from lawmakers in public for the first time in his presidency, Rouhani vigorously defended his performance and said street protests in Iran had emboldened President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the nuclear agreement. The deal had eased Iran's global political and economic isolation in exchange for curbs on the nation's uranium enrichment program.

"These days, the situation in our country has made it harder for people to make ends meet, and the people are under the hardest economic conditions," said lawmaker Hamidreza Fouladgar, blaming the struggles on Rouhani's policies.

Rouhani acknowledged that mistakes had been made but warned that constant public airing of the nation's hardships could be counterproductive.

"Certainly, we made - and we have made - mistakes. We should work together to make up for these mistakes," he said during the session, which was broadcast on state television. But he cautioned, "Beware that sabotage leads to destruction, and painting a bleak picture of people's lives will lead to further darkness."

Lawmakers, however, were unconvinced and will debate whether to refer the questions over Iran's double-digit inflation, high unemployment, collapsing currency and smuggling of goods to the judiciary - a step that could expose Rouhani to impeachment proceedings.

Earlier this month, parliament ousted the economy and labor ministers, intensifying the pressure on Rouhani.

Tuesday's session was only the second time that parliament had summoned a sitting Iranian president for questioning. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced a similar cross-examination over economic woes in 2011.

Rouhani's grilling contributed to a growing sense that his position is increasingly precarious as Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeks to alleviate the widespread discontent over strict social constraints and the ailing economy. Earlier this month, Khamenei took the unusual step of blaming Rouhani's government for the financial crisis.

Legal experts and analysts, however, said Rouhani is not likely to be ousted before his term ends in three years. Parliament has not established that he broke any rules, rendering a judicial referral unlawful, according to the experts. It could, however, strengthen hard-liners who oppose Rouhani's reformist agenda, which saw him decisively win two terms and whose signature achievement had been the ratification of the nuclear deal.

For Khamenei, Rouhani is a necessary outlet to soak up public anger that has occasionally challenged the ruling clergy.

"One of the features of [Khamenei's] rule which has really added to his longevity is the fact that he wields power without accountability, and, in order to do that, he needs a president who has accountability without power," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Khamenei, Sadjadpour continued, "actually benefits from having a weakened Rouhani remain in power" so he can "absorb all of the accountability for the lousy economic situation."

The U.S. sanctions, which went into effect this month, have contributed to dramatic spikes in the prices of food, medicines and air travel, as well as a sense of economic calamity among ordinary Iranians. Economists expect a second raft of sanctions in November, targeting Iran's critical oil industry, to inflict further damage.

Rouhani has indicated that he is seeking to preserve the 2015 accord by working with the other major powers that are signatories to the deal. That has been complicated as European companies have fled Iran, afraid of running afoul of the renewed U.S. sanctions.

Rouhani's effort to salvage parts of the deal were further undermined Tuesday. According to an internal French government order seen by the news agency Reuters, France has ordered diplomats and Foreign Ministry officials to postpone indefinitely nonessential travel to Iran, citing security threats and a "hardening of" Iranian authorities' attitudes toward France.

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The Washington Post's Bijan Sabbagh contributed to this report.

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