By Parisa Hafezi
ANKARA (Reuters) - Reformists who supported the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last year fear his focus on improving relations with the West will prevent him from pushing for greater political and cultural freedoms at home.
His foreign efforts began to bear fruit on Monday with the implementation of a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for some relief from international sanctions, but it came in the teeth of opposition from hardliners in Tehran, the conservative allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Some say that by securing Khamenei's consent to the nuclear deal, Rouhani has depleted his political capital with the man who has the final say on all state matters, leaving nothing for domestic reforms.
"It is a tactical flexibility. Khamenei has given Rouhani a free hand only on the nuclear issue, but not beyond that," said a former senior official on condition of anonymity.
"Criticism of the deal by hardliners was part of Khamenei's strategy, aimed at reminding Rouhani who was the boss and that he needed Khamenei's support to overcome the resistance."
Khamenei has been adept at ensuring that no group, even the conservatives, gains enough power to challenge his authority, so Rouhani's diplomatic triumph is likely to put him on a shorter leash on internal reforms and improvements in human rights.
These are "two fields in which nothing has changed", one gloomy pro-reform politician said.
Although Rouhani announced the release of 12 prominent political prisoners before he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in September, rights activists say there has been little else to cheer since he took office in August.
Reformist presidential candidates Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, whose defeat in 2009 sparked mass protests against what they said were rigged elections, remain under effective house arrest. They have never been charged.
In November, Reporters Without Borders said 10 reformist journalists and bloggers had been detained since June, while another 10 were given jail terms totaling 72 years. The authorities have closed or suspended publication of at least three newspapers in the same period.
"Rouhani should also speak out publicly against serious violations by security and intelligence forces, and act on campaign promises to ease controls on freedom of information, including heavy censorship," Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a report on Tuesday.
His promises to loosen internet restrictions have not been met. Access to social media remains officially blocked, though Rouhani and Khamenei have their own Twitter accounts.
Rouhani has argued for patience and moderation in seeking domestic change, and focuses instead on the flagging economy, which will benefit from the easing of sanctions.
That will also play well with the lower-income groups that form the base of Khamenei's support.
Though he commands the army and can count on the loyalty of the elite Revolutionary Guards and the Basij religious militia, which crushed mass protests in 2009, Khamenei fears economic problems could weaken his position.
"The state of the economy is considered a crucial factor for Khamenei. That is why he backed Rouhani's nuclear policy," said a relative of Khamenei who asked not to be named.
But Khamenei also continued to give speeches larded with denunciations of "enemies" and "the Great Satan", words aimed at reassuring hardliners for whom anti-U.S. sentiment has always been central to Iran's Islamic revolution.
Paradoxically, engagement with the international community, which will improve Iranian people's lives, is likely to cement the hardliners' grip on power.
Rouhani, who has been part of the establishment for decades, has said he wants to bring change after winning a landslide election in June on a progressive platform, but history gives little encouragement.
He is not the first president with a reform agenda to serve under Khamenei, who took over as leader in 1989 from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
When Mohammed Khatami was in power from 1997 to 2005, Khamenei initially allowed a relaxation of Iran's strict regulation of social and political freedom, but eventually saw demands for change as a threat.
"The supreme leader is likely to have little patience for adventurist behavior by Rouhani," said Meir Javedanfar, politics lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya.
Little is known about the details of regular weekly meetings between Rouhani and Khamenei, but Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Rouhani's own history suggests there is little reason to suspect he has the stomach to push Khamenei.
"Throughout Rouhani's entire political career, prior to becoming president, whenever there was an opportunity to stand for civil liberties and popular will, he has always sided with the governmental repression," said Sadjadpour.
Rouhani will also know that seeking detente with the West has only just begun and will require the continuing support of Khamenei if it is to proceed further.
"In terms of foreign policy the current situation is likely to call for more flexibility, meaning more room for maneuver for Rouhani. In terms of domestic policy, cohesion and consolidation is needed, and this will mean less room for maneuver," said Javedanfar.
That will mean endless frustration for those who hoped for change.
"I don't know much about politics, but I voted for Rouhani to have more freedom. But I only hear empty words," said university student Azin Ghayumi. "My father says Iran's image in the world has improved, but why should I care, when I am not connected to the world?"
It has also changed the travel plans of dissident exiles who thought of returning under Rouhani.
The hope of change is vanishing among the opposition abroad, said one, and more success in foreign policy means more pressure inside the country.
Ebrahim Nabavi, a twice-jailed writer and satirist, and Nazak Afshar, who left after being arrested in the 2009 protests, told Reuters last year they planned to return, but they remain overseas.
Ziba, who used to work for a pro-reform newspaper before fleeing Iran in 2007 after she was detained briefly over articles she wrote, has also abandoned her plans. She asked not to give her surname.
"I was so happy for Rouhani's victory. I told my husband that we should return home, but we had to wait for a few months because of my university term," she said.
"And I am happy that we did not go back. I hear from my former colleagues that the situation has not improved, and people like me can be put in jail upon their arrival at the airport," she said.
"Rouhani is just a front. The main man is Khamenei, and he has not changed. He does not believe in reforms," said the first exile.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Angus Mcdowall and Will Waterman)