By Majid Rafizadeh
May 28, 2021
In less than a month, Iran’s presidential election will be held, with a new president due to replace Hassan Rouhani on Aug. 3. It is now time to examine Rouhani’s legacy as his second term comes to an end.
When Rouhani first ran for president in 2013, he projected himself as being very different to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the hard-liners. Rouhani pledged to improve the nation’s economy, people’s living standards and their human rights, while also promising greater political and social freedoms, and improved ties with the rest of the world.
Rouhani did improve the Iranian regime’s ties with the West in his first term, as he helped seal the nuclear deal with the P5+1 powers. Four rounds of UN sanctions against Iran were lifted and Tehran rejoined the global financial system. Billions of dollars subsequently flowed into the regime’s treasury. But the only beneficiaries of Iran’s improved relationship with the West were government officials, those connected to them, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force, and Iran’s militia and terror groups across the Middle East. The increased revenues did not trickle down to the ordinary people of Iran. In addition, Iranians did not witness any improvements in their social or political freedoms, or in terms of their human rights.
In his second presidential campaign, Rouhani put the blame on the hard-liners for stalling the fulfillment of his goals. He claimed he needed more time to deliver on his promises, while also rallying support by shrewdly capitalizing on Persian nationalism, criticizing other leaders for attempting to eliminate Persian history from Iran’s culture. For example, during the campaign, he said to rival candidate Ebrahim Raisi: “You have a problem with citizens and young people, fine. But what’s your problem with Ferdowsi (the 10th-century Persian poet)?
Why did you wipe his poems off city walls? You told the people of Mashhad that if they want art and artistic events, they should leave the city. Would you like to grab Iran and tell the people to leave the country?”
Many people gave Rouhani a second chance. After he was elected for a second term, he posted on Twitter: “Iran is a great nation. You are the real winners of the election… I shall remain loyal to my commitments to you.” But were the ordinary people of Iran the real winners?
During Rouhani’s second term, ordinary citizens’ living standards deteriorated to an unprecedented level. Many people now cannot afford to buy basic supplies. The country is experiencing skyrocketing inflation — the worst witnessed since the First World War. Even an Iranian lawmaker, Ehsan Khandouzi, acknowledged this month: “Recently, the 75-year-old record of inflation was broken in Iran. If this is not happening, then the Central Bank should publish the February report.” He added: “Iran only has seen inflation over 50 percent in the years of occupation (the First World War).”
When it comes to his promises of providing greater political freedoms and improving human rights, Iran’s crackdown on free speech and its levels of oppression peaked on Rouhani’s watch. Specifically, during the widespread protests of 2017 and 2019, the regime brutally suppressed the unprecedented levels of social, economic and political unrest it faced.
Regarding the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, Rouhani promised equal rights for all. But the Iranian regime has increased its systematic persecution of minorities, including the Kurds, Sunnis, Christians and Arabs.
Meanwhile, in its 2019 global review of the death penalty, Amnesty International stated: “Iran retained its place as the world’s second-most prolific executioner after China.” During Rouhani’s tenure, thousands of people have been executed, tortured or killed by the regime’s forces.
Rouhani’s two terms as president have taught many Iranians that the notion of moderates or reformists in the Iranian regime is a myth. People have lost hope that the regime can change from within, and that is why many slogans have become popular for the first time in recent years, such as: “Reformist, hard-liner, the game is now over,” “Death to Rouhani” and “Shame on you Khamenei, step down from power.”
Many citizens have also realized that Rouhani, like many authorities across Iran’s political spectrum, is only loyal to Khamenei, not the ordinary people. Whether a “moderate” or a hard-liner, Iranian politicians believe in the revolutionary ideals of the regime, such as exporting the revolution abroad.
Rouhani’s legacy is increased poverty, record inflation, a high unemployment rate, human rights violations, deaths, and destruction. Many Iranians have learned that the promises of the authorities across the political spectrum are empty and there is no such thing as a moderate in the theocratic establishment of Iran.