WASHINGTON – In the days before President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election victory in Iran this past weekend, a video of one of his old speeches circulated on social media. Speaking at Iran’s parliament, Rouhani says dissidents against the new regime should be publicly hanged during Friday prayers as a message.
Rouhani was a younger man in this speech, in his early 40s. The revolution was also young. And many Iranian leaders of that era have taken the journey from revolution to reform. The reason Rouhani’s speech though is so relevant to Iran today is because, in public at least, the president of Iran has changed his tune. During his campaign, he told voters that he would be a “lawyer” defending their rights. He criticized his main rival, Ebrahim Raisi, for his role in ordering the executions of political dissidents. He promised gender equality and a freer press.
All of that sounds pretty good. And for those in the West looking for an Iranian version of Mikhail Gorbachev, it makes a nice talking point. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe Rouhani will deliver, or even try to deliver, on any of these promises.
There are a few reasons for this. To start, Rouhani delivered the same line back in 2013 when he first won the presidency. We now know that human rights in Iran have further eroded during his tenure. A lot of this has been documented by the Center for Human Rights in Iran. The organization noted in October that Rouhani supported a law that would essentially place all Iranian media under government control. The center also documented a wave of arrests of journalists in November 2015, following Iran’s agreement to the nuclear bargain with the United States and five other world powers. In the run-up to Friday’s vote, 29 members of the European Parliament wrote an open letter urging Iran to end its arrests, intimidation and harassment of journalists in the election season.
Sadegh Zibakalam, an activist and professor of political science at Tehran University, summed this up well in November: “Rouhani did not have the power to free political prisoners or end the house arrests, but he didn’t even pretend that he wanted to do something.”
In fairness to Rouhani, much of this is beyond his control. As anyone who pays attention to Iran knows, the real power in the country resides with unelected supreme leader Ali Khamenei, and the security services, which operate more like rival mafias these days, controlling many of Iran’s industries and businesses. This means in practice that Rouhani can inveigh against crackdowns and house arrests of the democratic opposition (which he mainly does during elections), but ultimately it’s not his call.
Rouhani also doesn’t have much of a say on Iran’s foreign policy. Despite the completion of the nuclear deal and a U.S. president desperate to restore diplomatic ties, Iran escalated its predations in the Middle East in the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Iranian officers were helping to direct the ground campaign against Aleppo, Syria, this fall, when rebels finally lost control of a city the dictator had starved.
Obama administration alumni will say that Rouhani’s election in 2013 was an important precondition for getting a nuclear deal. This, too, overstates the importance of Iran’s president. It’s true that secret negotiations picked up after Rouhani won in 2013. But there would be no nuclear deal without the blessing of the supreme leader. What’s more, at the time the Obama administration said they were able to get the Iranians to negotiate because the U.S. led an international effort to impose crippling sanctions on the state’s banking system and oil industry.
All of this should inform how we in the West understand what just happened in Iran. It’s true that turnout for the vote was high. It’s also true that genuine reformers and dissidents urged their followers to vote for Rouhani. But this masks a deeper point: Iranian elections have the legitimacy of votes for a high school’s student government association. Many students may vote from a narrow set of options, but the students they elect must yield to those who wield real power, the teachers and the school’s administrators.
And yet reading the Western press, you’d think Iran was like any other free country. Rouhani won in a “landslide,” many headlines blared. It is widely interpreted as a rebuke of hardliners. I look forward to a BBC analysis of Rouhani’s get-out-the-vote effort in Isfahan.
Western journalists and analysts are hardly alone. Obama, too, suffered from the delusion that Iranian politics were contested between reformers and hardliners. In his 2015 message to Iranians for the Nowruz holiday, Obama said, “My message to you, the people of Iran, is that together we have to speak up for the future that we seek.”
Iranians did speak up for their future in 2009. That was during another election. The hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was challenged by the Green Movement that campaigned on expanding rights for the people and ending confrontation with the West. But Ahmadinejad stole that election, and the state arrested thousands of citizens who had the temerity to take their grievances to the street. The leaders of that movement remain under house arrest, despite Rouhani’s promise in 2013 to free them.
And this gets to why it’s so dangerous for free nations to pretend that there is real political competition in Iran. If you accept that premise, it leads to fuzzy policies aimed at strengthening reformers and moderates, while chalking up Iran’s arrests of dual nationals or its provocations of U.S. ships to the infighting of Iran’s hardliners.
It’s understandable that Iranians forced to live under the thumb of the mullahs voted for the least-worst option. But Westerners should never lose sight of a better Iran, where politicians can actually deliver on popular promises to free dissidents and support equal rights for women. Congratulating Iran for its fake elections only legitimizes a system where real elections are not possible.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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