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The Supreme Leader of Iran has never held back from using sharp words. Over the weekend, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei defended Iran's missile program. He said Western objection to that program were, quote, stupid and idiotic. What nobody really knows is why the Supreme Leader says things like that. Maybe he's signaling hostility to a deal with the West. Or maybe he is just trying to keep ahead of Iranian conservatives, who oppose nuclear talks that the Supreme Leader actually supports.
Those talks resume this week. They involve the government of Iran's elected president, Hassan Rouhani, who has staked his presidency on getting a deal. Part of Rouhani's challenge is managing opposition at home.
Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: As Iranian negotiators flew to New York for expert level nuclear talks, conservatives gathered in parliament and at the old American embassy to attack their government for allegedly giving away Iran's nuclear rights. It was an unusually public political assault on Rouhani, given that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had defended the nuclear talks. President Rouhani quickly fired back at his detractors.
HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through translator) Through lies and hype, some people are trying to derail the government from its path, and this is against national interests and the leader's order. Iran does not compromise on the people's interests.
KENYON: Analysts say the increasing volume of conservative attacks is troubling, especially when coupled with the quieter but noticeable criticism coming from reformers over the lack of progress on social and cultural reforms that Rouhani raised during his campaign.
Trita Parsi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian-American Council , says as Rouhani's team dug into the economic problems, they found even more of a mess than they had imagined - structural problems that will take a long time to fix, even if a nuclear deal can be reached.
TRITA PARSI: Even if sanctions are lifted, it's going to take a tremendous amount of effort to be able to fix those problems. But the population's expectations, however, is more geared towards thinking that once there's a nuclear deal, things will change quickly. And that simply is not going to be the case.
KENYON: Economist Djavad Salehi Isfahani, at Virginia Tech University, was back in Iran as recently as December. He says Rouhani has rightly focused on big economic issues: balancing the budget, cutting the horrendous inflation rate, stabilizing the currency and promoting investment. He has also assembled a savvy and competent economic team, presenting a much more stabilizing image than the one left by his populist and erratic predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But Isfahani worries that Rouhani is so focused on the larger picture that he risks being seen as indifferent to the street-level problems plaguing Iran's poor.
DJAVAD SALEHI ISFAHANI: Rouhani is very serious about putting economic improvement before redistribution. He has said very little about reducing poverty, reducing inequality, all the slogans that occupied his predecessor Ahmadinejad's mind.
KENYON: The other thing that he worries about is Rouhani's apparent lack of attention to Iran's double-digit unemployment rate, especially among the young. He says Rouhani has inspired confidence in parts of the business class, but may find that he needs a touch of Ahmadinejad's populism as well.
ISFAHANI: The fact that he is focused on lowering the dollar, the cost of imports, and has lowered inflation, all those are very good. But ultimately the average Iranian household wants to see their son or daughter have a future, be able to get a job, be able to move forward. And on that I don't think he has even started making promises, become more concrete about what he wants to do.
KENYON: Analyst Trita Parsi adds that for better or worse, Rouhani has tied his administration - and the hopes of the moderates and reformers who helped elect him - to the nuclear talks that are grinding toward a crucial moment this July.
PARSI: But he has truly bet almost his entire presidency right now on the nuclear talks. And that has had the consequence that a lot of other issues have not received that much attention from him. Because the strategy has been to fix the nuclear issue first, gain political capital and political space before he then takes on other issues, including cultural issues in the Iranian society.
KENYON: The question for some reformers now is whether Rouhani will ever have the political strength to take on Iran's hardliners, who are already warning him not to stray beyond the nuclear issue and the economy.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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