Ever since the recent wave of protests in Iran began on December 28, Western media coverage has disproportionately focused on socioeconomic causes as the main drivers behind citizens’ anger. Economic hardship is undeniably a key root cause, but to ignore the underlying political grievances is to lose sight of the bigger fight for the country’s future. Although Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may be neither the primary target nor the proximate cause of the demonstrations, his record in office since winning reelection last May has been an enormous disappointment to the nearly 24 million Iranians who voted for his second term. Instead of seeking to be his own man, Rouhani has repeatedly fallen back into following the playbook of the unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, widening the already dangerous disconnect between ordinary Iranians and the ruling Shiite Islamist elite that purports to represent them. Nothing short of major reform can save the Islamic Republic in the long term.
Despite his portrayal in some Western media outlets, Rouhani has never called himself a political reformer nor has the Iranian public ever considered him to be one. His election victory had less to do with his own popularity than with the unpopularity of his hard-liner opponent, Ibrahim Raisi. Over the course of the campaign, however, Rouhani made a key pledge that stuck with voters: citizens would gain greater political freedom were he reelected. In his second term, he said, his government would belong to “100 percent of all Iranians” and he would seek to open the path for political participation for youth, women, and ethnic and religious minorities. And he again vowed to seek the release of opposition leaders under house arrest since 2011, a pledge he first made before his initial election in 2013. Overpromising during an election year is not unique to Iran, but in the case of Rouhani the gap between slogans and reality has been dazzling.
The disappointment began at his first press conference after reelection. Unduly cautious and uninspiring, Rouhani chose not
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