Iranian President Hassan Rouhani exits the room after addressing the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 2017.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani exits the room after addressing the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 2017. 
Eduardo Munoz / REUTERS

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 to even mention the country’s political prisoners, whose release had been a cornerstone pledge of his campaign. It was a bad omen, foreshadowing his reluctance to claim an electoral mandate at the risk of being perceived as a challenge to Khamenei. 

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.

Next, Rouhani appointed a cabinet devoid of reformists. Worse, he had each cabinet minister preapproved by Khamenei. During his campaign, he expressed sympathy for Iran’s restless female activists and voters, yet appointed no women to his cabinet despite urging from many corners. He similarly passed over Iran’s Sunni minority, which makes up about ten percent of the population and gave him record support at the ballot box. (In Kurdistan and Baluchistan, the country’s largest Sunni-majority provinces, about seven out of ten voters backed him.) Rouhani chose instead to appease the hard-line Shiite Islamist clerics who supported his rival, Raisi, and kept Sunnis out of his cabinet. The Rouhani government did not even appoint a single Sunni governor for any of the country’s 31 provinces.

He then remained silent as the 12-man unelected hard-line Guardian Council—which effectively answers only to Khamenei and acts as a filter that has to approve all government legislation and candidates seeking office—overruled a parliamentary legislation and barred non-Muslims from running for office in municipal elections. This is tantamount to codifying Iran’s ancient Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian communities as second-class citizens in the political process.

This episode highlighted a major demographic gulf between Iran’s rulers and those they rule. The head of the Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati, is a 90-year-old regime ideologue, while 90 percent of the protesters arrested in recent days have been under the age of 25.

Since his reelection, Rouhani has let down the key demographics that voted for him and instead sought to create a platform for lasting coexistence with the hard-liners. As a man who aspires to succeed Khamenei as the next supreme leader, he sees this faction in the Islamic Republic as pivotal for his chances to continue stepping up the ladder of power. The campaign promises he made only a few months ago are seemingly a distant memory.

Most notably, Rouhani has stayed out of the way of the Revolutionary Guards, the elite political-military force that spearheads Iran’s military operations in the region in places such as Iraq and Syria while stifling protests at home. In December 2017, he announced an increase in their budget and has resisted international pressure to curb the corps’ controversial, if troubling, activities. More money for the Revolutionary Guards–controlled ballistic missile program or the Quds Force—the foreign branch of the Revolutionary Guards—had not been on the agenda when Rouhani ran his reelection campaign back in May. One could hear the growing public resentment against the Revolutionary Guards in demonstrators’ chants of “No Gaza, No Lebanon, my life is only for Iran.” In recent months, as Iran has been hit by a number of deadly earthquakes and the state’s response has been wanting, the Islamic Republic’s foreign priorities became a matter of much scrutiny and scorn.  

Even when the Revolutionary Guards have openly defied Rouhani—as when its intelligence branch arrested a number of dual citizens and risked scaring away foreign investors that Rouhani so desperately courts and needs to create jobs—the elected president has chosen to still go along with the most hard-line elements in the regime. In the presidential debates in May that were aired on live television, Rouhani thrilled many when he attacked the hard-liners—including those in the Revolutionary Guards—for gangster tactics that undermine Iran’s global image. He has since done little, however, to confront the same elements. In not doing so, he has not only failed to bring about more of a balance in the distribution of power among elected and unelected organs in the Islamic Republic, but has also raised the question of whether this system is able to be reformed at all via the ballot box.

Back in 2009, when Iran last had large-scale popular protests, the key popular demand was to repeat an election that many considered patently fraudulent. This time around, the protesters have been far angrier, demanding wholesale replacement of the entire political system. The chants of “death to Khamenei” and “the clerics have to go” by the protesters are the most radical of demands for change since the Islamic Republic was born in 1979. The intransigence of the political model has seemingly convinced a younger generation of Iranians that reforming the system is not possible. Of course, Rouhani alone cannot be blamed for this. Since the 2009 protests, it has been Khamenei and his cohorts, such as the Revolutionary Guards, that have done the most to strangle the process of political reform in Iran.

And yet Rouhani can look at the latest protests as an opportunity to emerge as his own man. Since last May, he has moved toward the hard-liners in order to give himself a fighting chance to become the next supreme leader. With the shock from the scale of popular anger likely to reverberate in the ranks of the regime for some time, Rouhani should consider turning the tables on his rivals. He has but one choice for the message he must convey: the only viable way to keep the Islamic Republic alive is to launch deep and meaningful political reform. It might well be too late, but Rouhani owes as much to the nearly 24 million who reelected him.

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  • ALEX VATANKA is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of a forthcoming book, The Making of Iranian Foreign Policy. Follow him on Twitter @AlexVatanka.
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