Parliament moves against Iranian president over economy and nuclear policy

The move could result in impeachment although the supreme leader has called for unity amid the pandemic

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (not pictured) in Tokyo, Japan, December 20, 2019. Charly Triballeau/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
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Iran faces a political standoff as hardliners in parliament move to summon President Hassan Rouhani to answer questions in a move that could result in his impeachment.

Amid an economic crisis, a crippled rial and a rising death toll from the coronavirus pandemic, hardliners – many of whom have long sought to undermine Mr Rouhani's term – are now looking to dethrone him a year before the end of his presidency.

First elected in a landslide in 2013, the "moderate" Mr Rouhani rode an early wave of popular support after the 2015 nuclear deal saw US sanctions on Tehran removed and money, development and jobs flow into the long-isolated nation.

However, US President Donald Trump tore up the agreement just three years later. Iranians' now struggle daily to make ends meet, the economy has been further damaged by rising inflation, growing unemployment, a slump in the rial and now the coronavirus crisis. The bitter disagreement with the US has also brought the two countries to the brink of war.

"The lawmakers have various questions for the president, including the reasons behind the foreign exchange market crisis as well as the high prices of basic goods and basic necessities of the people today," Iran's semi-official Tasnim quoted Tehran lawmaker Eqbal Shakeri as saying.

A motion on Monday to question President Hassan Rouhani was signed by 120 lawmakers out of 290 and handed to the presiding board of the assembly, Tasnim reported. To take effect, the motion must be passed to the president by the presiding board.

While the move is significant, it remains – for now – symbolic. The board might still hold back from issuing the summons, mindful that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for unity among the branches of authority at a time when Iran faces mounting US pressure.

While there have been similar moves against the president by hardliners in parliament before, Mr Khamenei has effectively vetoed the president's removal in order not to exacerbate divisions. Analysts have suggested that he may well be pleased to see a weakened Mr Rouhani he does not want his removal. A move by parliament to question Mr Rouhani's predecessor was blocked by a rare intervention by Mr Khamenei.

Hardliners always opposed Mr Rouhani's agreement to sit down with world powers and agree a nuclear deal and Tasnim said that MPs planned to quiz the president on "the government's strategic mistake that allowed the US withdrawal from the deal at the lowest cost".

On Sunday, shouts of 'liar' interrupted a speech to parliament about the accord by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as some lawmakers vented their displeasure.

Mr Zarif, also Iran's top nuclear negotiator, hit back by saying that the nuclear talks had been agreed by Mr Khamenei.

Parliament has no major influence on foreign affairs or nuclear policy, which are set by Mr Khamenei. But it might bolster hardliners in the 2021 election for president and toughen the anti-Western tilt of Tehran's foreign policy.

Conservatives swept most of the house's seats at an election earlier this year although there were accusations that most moderate candidates had their names rejected to run and numbers were significantly depressed due to the creeping pandemic and general apathy towards the political class just weeks after the military admitted to shooting down a passenger jet killing all 176 onboard – many of whom were Iranian dual nationals.