During June’s presidential election in Iran, many Westerners strongly hoped for a Hassan Rouhani victory. Rouhani, the incumbent president, was a “moderate,” the argument went, and during the campaign he had criticized the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and promised to have women and minorities in his cabinet.
Now it is mid-August, and it is already evident that there will be no reform, and that Rouhani’s promises were meant only to attract votes—not to bring about any change, liberalization, or reform in Iran.
Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy tells the sad story in a recent article entitled “Rouhani’s Road Already Taken.” There Khalaji notes that two of Rouhani’s rivals for the presidency have already been elevated by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to the Expediency Council, so that body actually has more hardliners than it did before the election. But that was Khamenei, defenders of Rouhani as a moderate might say. Khalaji notes that while Rouhani criticized the IRGC during his campaign, “he immediately toned down the rhetoric after winning.” Worse, in August his government backed in the Majlis new legislation directing 540 million additional dollars to the IRGC; in July it enlarged even further the IRGC’s hold on the Iranian economy by giving the IRGC-owned construction company (Khatam al-Anbia) the right to take over any project over $52.4 million in size, pushing aside any domestic or foreign competitor. As to having women or minorities in his cabinet Rouhani has simply not kept his promise.
Observers of Iran will also have noticed the hunger strike by the 79-year-old Mehdi Karroubi, a reformer and former presidential candidate who has been under house arrest since 2011. Karroubi was hospitalized this week. Rouhani promised to free Karroubi from house arrest when he first ran for president, in 2013, but that was another campaign promise of reform that was forgotten once the election was over.
It does not really matter whether in his heart Rouhani wishes he could free Karroubi. What does matter is that once again Westerners hoping for change in Iran have deceived themselves; allowed themselves to believe that Iran’s closed, corrupt, and repressive theocracy was about to change; concluded that Rouhani was some sort of “moderate” despite the fact that human rights conditions in Iran worsened during his first term in office; and continued to treat Rouhani, foreign minister Javad Zarif, and others whom the regime uses to calm Westerners as if they were actors in an effort to liberalize Iran.
They are not. They are important parts of the repressive and brutal regime that rules the Islamic Republic. The real actors in the struggle to change Iran and free its people from tyranny are the people of Iran, not officials of the regime. As Misagh Parsa recounts in his fascinating book Democracy in Iran, the regime has been at war with the people since 1979—year in and year out, month after month. Iranians have no illusions about those who rule them. Neither should we. When a regime cannot release someone like Mehdi Karroubi from house arrest after six years, and at age 79, we are reminded of the nature of the regime—and of its own understanding that Iranians will be rid at once of it if ever they have the chance.