Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani plans to sue the country’s state broadcaster for defamation after a hardline cleric accused him of being an opium user on national television, the president’s office of legal affairs said Friday.
Speaking during a debate on President Rouhani’s legacy, Ahmed Jahan Bozorgi, a senior member of an Islamic think tank that advises the government, asked whether a man who stays home smoking opium and cannot be reached by his cabinet ministers is a responsible official.
Mr Bozorgi’s institute later disavowed the comments, as did the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation (IRIB), which broadcast the programme, but the incident highlights growing efforts by hardliners to discredit Mr Rouhani and his moderate allies ahead of presidential elections in June.
IRIB is controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has been increasingly critical of the Rouhani administration in recent months.
A spokesman for the president demanded a further apology. “What was broadcast last night was sadly just shameless insult, slander and foul language against the president,” Alireza Moezi wrote.
Hardliners have increased pressure on President Rouhani and his cabinet in recent weeks, with one radical member of parliament even suggesting “it is time to impeach him” now that former US president Donald Trump is out of office.
Having failed to install their preferred candidates in Iran’s last two presidential elections, hardliners are looking to capitalise on gains made during heightened tensions with the US during the Trump administration.
On Wednesday, hardliners summoned Rouhani allies Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the Communications Minister Mohammad Azari Jahromi for questioning in parliament, where they were respectively accused of “being a friend of Biden” and “too liberal towards social media”.
President Rouhani meanwhile said Wednesday he is hopeful that US sanctions on Iran will be lifted following the inauguration of President Joe Biden, further angering hardliners, who oppose adopting a softer tone towards the US.
If the US lifts sanctions and returns to the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Mr Trump, this could give Iranian moderates the edge in presidential elections. Mr Rouhani however is ineligible to run again, having served two terms.
Hardliners meanwhile oppose returning to the deal. “We do not need the nuclear deal anymore. Our strength comes from the fact that we have kept our existence without it,” said Hossein Salami, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Placing a candidate from IRGC to the top civilian post in Tehran would cement the position of conservative hardliners in the republic, who dominated parliamentary elections last March and control the country’s powerful unelected bodies, including the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts.