In the desert town of Sorkheh, Hassan Rouhani’s hometown 200km east of Tehran, support for the Iranian president and his policies is waning as food prices have risen.
“We spend some evenings without even stale bread to eat,” said Kolsoum, 40, a widow and mother of two, as she stretched out dough in a bakery shop. She works from 4am to 2pm for a daily wage of 200,000 rials ($4.75). “I wrote a letter to Mr Rouhani when he was here some months ago but he has not replied.”
“Voting for Mr Rouhani has had no benefits for us,” said her colleague Mehri, 24, who has two children and whose husband cannot work because of a back injury. “It is seven or eight months since I have bought chicken. We eat eggs.”
This week, Iran said it had breached internationally agreed limits on its enriched uranium stocks in a further blow to a landmark nuclear deal that President Donald Trump abandoned last year.
Mr Rouhani made the accord a central part of his platform in 2013 polls and again in elections two years ago. He won a landslide — 65 per cent of the vote in Sorkheh and 57 per cent nationally — promising economic prosperity as relations with western powers improved. Now Mr Trump’s reimposition of sanctions has hit oil exports, the country’s lifeline. Inflation is nearly 40 per cent and the value of the rial has plunged about 60 per cent against the dollar.
On a day-to-day basis, life has got tougher, a fact that hardliners hope could damage the reformists’ chances in future elections. There are no reliable polls, but commentators speculate that, with the nuclear deal Mr Rouhani staked his campaign on in tatters, his popularity is at a record low.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Sorkheh, traditionally a bastion of support for the president, where disillusionment is rife. The small town, on the edge of a vast desert, is home to about 12,000 people who rely on poultry, agriculture and construction to make a living.
“It is not clear where Mr Rouhani stands in domestic politics right now. It is as if his presence or absence no longer makes a difference,” said Hossein-Ali, a 60-year-old retired teacher who personally knows the president and “still likes him”.
He stands opposite a mosque where Iran’s 70-year-old leader used to pray. Mr Rouhani left Sorkheh, then a village, aged 15. All these years later, there is clearly still affection for the president and his family. Many people remember his father and his ethical approach to business, the herbal shop he ran and the fact that he distributed lamb and rice to the poor.
In Sorkheh, there is also an appreciation that the president’s hands may be tied. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the ultimate decision maker and has vowed that there should be no negotiations with the Trump administration.
One of the biggest ideological pillars of the Islamic republic is hostility towards the US. Other institutions, such as the Revolutionary Guards, also wield huge power. Mr Rouhani has complained that he controls less than half of the annual budget — the rest is in the hands of religious and revolutionary institutions that are not accountable to him.
“Mr Rouhani’s problem is that he has failed to rely on his 24m votes to say we have signed an international agreement and should behave differently in the region,” said Hamid-Reza, a local businessman who argues that the reformist-backed president has been out manoeuvred by his hardline opponents.
In the meantime, sales at his grocery store have halved over the past year as incomes fall. Many others share his concern about the economy. A quarter of a century after Ali Akbar, a 55-year-old construction worker, helped build a house for Mr Rouhani’s parents, the construction sector is in the doldrums. “I don’t know whose fault that is. The US can certainly be blamed,” he said. “Trump will not be able to defeat Iran and would have attacked Iran if he could.”
Mr Rouhani needs to tread a careful path, said a former member of Sorkheh town council. Like his predecessors, he could fall foul of the Islamic establishment and be relegated to the fringes of political debate.
“The only ray of light at the end of this dark tunnel for Mr Rouhani could be negotiations with the US before his presidency ends,” he said. “Otherwise, we shall find him where other former presidents are now.”