Hassan Rouhani, the newly re-elected president of Iran, is a creature of the Islamic Republic’s establishment, an apparatchik with much guile and little imagination. And yet Rouhani’s subversive political campaign may do lasting damage to the Islamic Republic. In the process of reclaiming his office, he shed light on the regime’s dark past and made fantastic promises that he has neither the ability nor the intention of keeping. Rouhani’s campaign alienated the regime’s powerbrokers and his tenure will inevitably disillusion his constituents. The Rouhani presidency will once more remind the Iranian people that the theocratic state cannot reform itself.
In one of his rallies, Rouhani assailed his conservative rival Ibrahim Raisi by stressing that “the people will say no to those who over the course of 38 years only executed and jailed.” Here Rouhani was obliquely referring to one of the regime’s most contentious acts. In the summer of 1988, the aging founding leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in one last act of vengeance against his secular detractors, ordered the mass execution of political prisoners. The judiciary was to discharge its obligations and established a panel of judges soon knows as the “Death Commission” to carry out the killings. Raisi first came to national attention as member of that commission, which put to death thousands of prisoners in short order. Most of the executed were denied a proper burial and had their bodies dumped in mass and undisclosed graves. In the Islamic Republic’s cruel lexicon, these were called “cemeteries for the dammed.”
This was Raisi’s justice, but the burden was not his alone. The prison genocide was overseen by two officials—the then-president of Iran, Ali Khamenei, and the speaker of the parliament, the late Hashemi Rafsanjani. As a member of parliament at that time, Rouhani was well aware of what was taking place in the prisons. He chose silence. For the past three decades, the regime has sought to whitewash its past by making it taboo to publicly discuss this episode. Still, rumors abound, and that demented summer is enshrined in the collective memory. By invoking that episode, Rouhani challenged the core legitimacy of a theocratic state that insists on its religious pedigree and its concern for dispensing justice. Khamenei and the ruling elite who are implicated in that massacre are unlikely to easily forgive their newly reelected president for his opportunism. Not only must Rouhani have been aware of that episode, but his political ally and current minister of justice, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, was one of the more aggressive judges on the Death Commission.
Throughout his campaign, Rouhani cleverly played to the crowds by criticizing the regime’s security organs and warning, “Those of you who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut. Those of you who over the past years only issued the word bane, banned the pen and banned the pictures. Please don’t even breathe the word freedom for it shames freedom.” The president on occasion also warned the Revolutionary Guards not to interfere with the election process. This was an act of political genius—as an insider of more than 30 years, Rouhani suddenly appropriated the language of dissent and seemingly presented himself as a critic of the system. And now the system is ready to strike back. Unlike the United States, Iran really has a “deep state”—and it remains intact, as Khamenei still controls all the relevant institutions and the Guards hold sway over much of Iran’s economy. It is hard to see how even Rouhani’s most modest policy ambitions can be implemented.
Still, Rouhani holds some advantages for the regime. As a politician who spent decades as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, he has been intimately involved with the regime’s terror apparatus. He built up much credit with the guardians of the state by remaining quiet in summer of 2009 as the Green Movement leaders were dispatched to prison on fantastic charges. And his presidency was devoted not to human rights and economic reform but beguiling the United States into an arms control agreement that put Iran on a steady and legal path to the bomb. These are not inconsiderable achievements, but in the vengeful politics of the Islamic Republic, they may not be sufficient to redeem him.
And then there are Rouhani’s pledges to the public. The president’s rallies, as indeed with most commemorative occasions in Iran, were transformed into protests against the state with the chanting of Green Movement slogans. Rouhani cleverly encouraged this, offered vague promises of restoring freedom and even hinted at the rehabilitation of those languishing in prison and exile. He was to stand against the forces of repression, despite the fact that he has a history of indifference to human rights. Rouhani was never part of the reform movement that exhilarated the Iranians in the 1990s with its claim to harmonize religion and pluralism, and he stood with the regime when the Green Movement shook the foundations of the state. The Islamic Republic cannot use its own constitutional provisions to broaden its parameters. Aggrieved Iranians will learn once more that they can gain no political relief from another Islamist president.
So it would be inaccurate to call Rouhani a reformist. He has always been part of a pragmatic cohort of Iranian leaders attracted to the so-called China model of offering citizens economic rewards in exchange for political passivity. During his campaign, he hinted at better times to come by claiming that he would succeed in lifting all the remaining sanctions on Iran. This is impossible, given Iran’s penchant toward terrorism, its human rights abuses and its imperial ravaging of the Middle East. The fact is that Iran has never been able to emulate China’s economic trajectory. A state drowning in corruption, with a history of mismanagement, Iran has always been plagued by the twin forces of inflation and unemployment. It is hard to see how the regime can meet the basic financial demands of its people as it insists on spending vast sums sustaining the Assad dynasty in Syria and menacing Sunni monarchy.
Rouhani has reclaimed the presidency with his usual mixture of cunning and cynicism. He will now confront Khamenei and other hardliners disturbed at his indictments of their regime and its history. All of Iran’s reelected presidents have limited room for maneuver given the imbalance of power between elected and non-elected institutions. But Rouhani even less so. Perhaps more problematic for the president and his republic is a disillusioned citizenry that will gain neither political freedom nor financial relief.
Iran is today what it has been since the outbreak of the Green Revolution in 2009, a regime marching steadily toward its demise. The bonds between state and society have long been severed and cannot be healed by another Rouhani presidency. Iran today resembles the Soviet Union of the 1970s, where appearances of strength concealed the reality of institutional decay and popular disenchantment. In one of the ironies of Iran, a president widely celebrated in the West has only further divided the elite and is bound to disappoint the public.
During his speech in Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump spoke of the need to confront and “isolate” Iran. But the Iran challenge confronting Trump is more intricate and perplexing than the one faced by his predecessors. This is no longer about imposing interim restraints on Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, but how to erode the unsteady foundations of the Islamic Republic. This will require disciplined application of both American power and rhetoric. The task at hand is to shrink Iran’s imperial frontiers while stressing its economy. The Trump team must reconstitute the shattered sanctions architecture while making human rights and the plight of dissidents one of its foremost priorities. In Riyadh, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered the first salvo in what needs to be a systematic campaign of delegitimizing the theocratic regime. America’s declarations have always mattered, none more so than in Iran, a country whose history has demonstrated an unusual degree of sensitivity to our words.
The Islamic Republic was an ideological experiment born in a century that witnessed so many attempts to bend human will to whims of vanguards of history. The revolution has now exhausted itself, and cannot meet either the material needs or the political aspirations of its constituents. The theocratic regime insists on marching toward the dustbin of history and the only question remains whether America can hasten that march.