Rouhani talks rights as Iran election nears, critic attacks him on economy

By Babak Dehghanpisheh
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani takes part in a news conference near the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Hassan Rouhani should apologize to the Iranian people if he cannot show that the economy has improved, one of Iran's most prominent hardliners said on Tuesday, setting a battle line for a presidential election in May.

Rouhani is opposed by hardliners who resent the nuclear deal he struck with world powers including the United States which lifted economic sanctions and was supposed to boost the economy.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Assembly of Experts, a body that selects Iran's supreme leader, starkly criticized that policy and what he said was Rouhani's failure to improve the economy over his four years in office.

“If the resistance economy has not been followed in the way that it should and must have been, then he must apologize and tell them (Iranians) the reasons,” Jannati told a meeting of the Assembly where Rouhani was present, Fars News reported.

Rouhani said that his administration would present a full economic report by the end of the Iranian calendar year, in late March, according to the state TV's website.

While hardliners, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have criticized Rouhani's economic record in recent weeks, the president has sought to move the political discourse to other matters that might appeal to moderate voters.

In a speech to lawyers at the Iranian bar association later on Tuesday, he expressed, in unusually blunt terms, his hopes for better civil rights in Iran.

“We need to make people more aware of their rights than in the past,” Rouhani said, according to Fars News. “When an investigator asks about people’s private lives they should stand strong and say ‘this is my private area and you don’t have a right to ask me about my private life.’

“We shouldn’t interfere in people’s private lives and shouldn’t search them.”

The conservatives who hope aim to stop Rouhani winning a second four-year term, have yet to identify their candidate, but they hope the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and his ban on travelers from Iran will swing public opinion their way.

“It’s a gift to the most radical elements of the Islamic Republic of Iran who have been saying for years that America is not interested in genuinely good relations with Iranian people,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)