sually, the hope is that after an election a country can move forward, the new leader’s agenda bolstered by a popular mandate. That is not the case with Iran. Hassan Rouhani’s second term as president was far from a win for Iran’s economy, Iran’s international standing, and certainly not for Iran’s people.
In the words of the only opposition posing an existential threat to the regime, the strong-arm tactics demonstrated by the regime during the election process further divided a regime already gravely weakened by an internal power struggle. Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, foresees Rouhani’s second term as serving only to aggravate that power struggle, bringing about a crisis at the leadership level of the ruling theocracy.
In Rajavi’s view, given the current circumstances at home and abroad, it is crucial for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to consolidate if he is to maintain his regime’s balance and weather out the near-daily crises that Iran faces. Khameni’s failure to manipulate the election so as to make usher Ebrahimi Raisi, his chosen candidate, into the presidential palace was a major defeat which does not bode well for his regime’s longevity.
Many believe Raisi’s “coronation” was a non-starter because his candidacy trained a spotlight on the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners. Raisi sat on the “Death Commission” that administrated the executions. That horrific national wound never healed — instead, it erupted into public outrage, and regime insiders’ fear of the mounting demand for justice caused many clerics, even powerful figures within Khamenei’s faction, to distance themselves from Raisi.
Despite their best efforts to maintain a modicum of discipline, a constant undercurrent of backbiting and badmouthing served only to highlight the role of both factions of the regime in the 1988 executions and other atrocities. In one swipe at his opponent during the election race, Rouhani declared that the only thing the ruling faction had known how to do for the past 38 years was “how to execute and imprison people.” Less than a month after the election 18 people were hanged in various cities in Iran.
The internal strife reflects failure of velayat-e faqih (absolute rule of the clergy) in resolving the most pressing social problems and growing discontent. Based on the admissions of the hand-picked candidates, the clerical regime has the support of only four percent of the population. Factions within the regime, including the one affiliated with Rouhani, are all competing against each other to gain the upper hand — not just in ruling but in embezzlement and plunder.
The slogan, “No to the charlatan, no to the executioner; my vote is [for] regime change” was heard across the country. That prompted Khamenei’s decision to wrap up the whole election process in the first round, and Raisi was pushed to the sidelines. However incensed at being thwarted he might have been, Khamenei was not willing to risk widespread unrest during a second round, potentially sparking an uprising of disaffected youths like that which threatened to topple the ruling regime in 2009.
So Iran got Rouhani for a second term. For critics of Iran, there will be more of the same: human rights abuses, regional meddling, and export of terrorism — and expect euphoria among diehard Iran apologists inside the Beltway, who have set the bar very low when it comes to the expectations of the Iranian people.
Rouhani is a known commodity. In his first term, the Iranian people endured a harsh crackdown marked by a spike in executions unprecedented in a quarter century, and economic misery; the region saw increasing interference, violence and conflict. Rouhani promised that the sanctions relief and infusion of cash from the nuclear deal would bring economic relief for ordinary citizens; it hasn’t yet, and Trump’s harsh stance threatens to set Washington’s relationship with Tehran back decades. Sanctions were never the real cause of Iran’s economic collapse, though, and sanctions relief did not relieve Iran’s economy. As for the cash, it was spent to fuel wars in the region and increase the budget of the military/security apparatus.
Rouhani’s empty promises will only exacerbate the infighting within the regime — already aggravated by the campaign — and fall flat in the face of Iranians’ expectations and demands. Mandate or no, he will fall short of altering the foundations, structure and behavior of the regime.
For the past 38 years, Rouhani has proven his allegiance to the Supreme Leader while serving at the highest levels of the regime’s security and military apparatuses. Portraying him as a moderate who will set Iran on a new path is futile. As Rajavi pointed out, Iran’s problems will not be solved unless and until their root cause — the theocratic regime — is ousted by the Iranian people.