Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is in the final year of his administration and speculation is rife about figures from across the political spectrum lining up to replace him before next year’s polls.
Whether Rouhani’s successor will be a moderate like himself who will tread the tortuous path of reform in a conservative society or a hardliner who will radically transform the nation’s trajectory in the realms of economy, foreign policy, defense, security and its social outlook in a marked departure from Rouhani’s modus operandi is a valid question, but needs to be debated closer to the campaign season.
What is of substance at this moment is critical scrutiny of President Rouhani’s performance, who rose to prominence thanks to the unconditional support of the reformist factions and parties, as well as what influential progressive icons such as former president Mohammad Khatami threw behind him, securing him two easy landslide victories in the 2013 and 2017 presidential contests.
Now, as the “diplomat sheikh” – the nickname Rouhani’s fans have bestowed upon him as a testament to his role in solidifying Iran’s foreign relations when he was the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council between 1989 and 2005 – prepares to step down, he is facing public impeachment on the extent to which he has been able to deliver his promises and win the approval of his base, which is mostly the young, educated middle-class Iranians living in large cities.
Many Iranians are now asking this pungent question on social media and on the streets: “Have we a mistake by voting for Rouhani?” For many of them, the answer is a resounding yes.
Sadly, it appears that the Islamic Republic insider who was believed to be able to fulfill the role of a savior, guaranteeing Iran’s redemption from international isolation, resuscitating the country’s dilapidated economy and eradicating the entrenched corruption blighting the institutions of the establishment, has hit a stalemate and thrown in the towel.
The Scotland-educated lawyer ran on a platform of constructive engagement with the international community, aiming to move past the trail of destruction his predecessor, the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had left behind and during whose time in office Iran was treated as a rogue state deserving the most severe punishments.
Rouhani was initially successful, and when his administration secured the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, two years after becoming president, he was given a huge boost that catapulted his domestic popularity to new heights and oiled the wheels of his international standing.
At the same time, hardliners went into a debilitating coma, and although they are not accustomed to being sidelined in the public sphere with their voices toned down, they submitted to the fact that Iran’s doors had opened to the world and their narrative of perpetual enmity with the West was no longer in fashion.
One month after the nuclear deal was signed, a poll by the Information and Public Opinion Solutions group showed 54% of Iranians approved of President Rouhani’s job. A separate survey by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies put Rouhani’s approval rating in the aftermath of the signing of JCPOA at a staggering 88%.
A year on, 75% of Iranians expressed interest in Rouhani as the nation’s second most popular politician, only behind his professorial foreign minister Javad Zarif, who is credited with being the architect of the Iran deal and the Security Council Resolution 2231.
The moderate cleric was setting off a meaningful change in Iran’s foreign relations and economy. Foreign leaders were eager to meet him.
He embarked on a charm offensive across Europe and had a hand in a heap of lucrative economic, financial, energy, development, technology, tourism and transportation contracts with European firms, paving their way to the tempting, untapped Iranian market of 80 million people.
He even went the extra mile, to the chagrin of his ultra-conservative detractors back home, to become the first Iranian politician after the 1979 revolution to directly talk to a sitting US president when he held a brief phone conversation with his counterpart Barack Obama in September 2013 while taking part in the UN General Assembly in New York. The nuclear deal had not been signed at that stage.
However, Rouhani’s heyday did not last long, and he was unlucky that Americans elected Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016. Trump had promised during his presidential campaign to rip up the “disastrous” nuclear deal with Tehran.
Trump’s hawkish Iran policy, manifested in blanket sanctions on all forms of trade with Iran and his discriminating travel bans, as well as his abrogation of the nuclear deal, made life difficult for average Iranians. But it also emboldened Iran’s hardliners, who were forced into hibernation after the JCPOA came into being, and irrevocably impaired Rouhani, throwing a spanner in his plan to integrate Iran into the international community.
The JCPOA was the signature foreign-policy achievement of Rouhani, which had started to pay off domestically, shoring up Iran’s languishing economy. As Trump gave the kiss of death to the pact, which was the outcome of years of sustained diplomacy, and as renewed sanctions began to eat away at Iran’s oil income and other sources of revenue, Rouhani also found himself in the heart of a legitimacy crisis, and was propelled to an involuntary alignment with the hardliners.
He perceptibly did not have any Plan B to salvage the Iran deal in partnership with the Europeans, who were certainly willing to withstand pressure from the Trump administration for the sake of keeping the JCPOA alive, and refused to enter negotiations with the Trump administration to see if he could achieve a new deal.
He even adopted traditional conservative rhetoric centered around the mantra of “enemy,” and in many speeches and statements, invoked the favorite references of hardliners to the United States as the source of all evils in the world, starkly contradicting his conciliatory tone and diplomatic disposition of the past decades.
This year, Rouhani ordered the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to roll back Iran’s commitments laid out under the JCPOA in five stages, which was certainly a strategic miscalculation and counter-productive to the ideal of preserving the Iran deal.
That deal was described by scores of international diplomats, foreign policy scholars, arms control and non-proliferation experts and those involved in the negotiations leading up to it as a historic achievement of diplomacy.
Yet it was not merely Rouhani’s cluelessness after the US withdrawal from the Iran deal and the abandonment of his principle of constructive engagement with the world that intensify the conviction that he has failed his constituents.
At home, Rouhani has totally neglected his campaign promises of making headway in the civil liberties of citizens, instructing government agencies to refrain from intruding in the personal choices and private lives of people, granting increased freedom to the media, securing better living conditions for journalists and artists, advocating women’s rights and above all, releasing the leaders of the Green Movement, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, from a house arrest that is now nine years old.
These are all credentials that constituted Rouhani’s popular talking points, and had convinced many of his now-disillusioned supporters that he had the ability to introduce reform in a society where resistance to social and political transformation has been part and parcel of the social landscape for decades.
As Iran has not yet recovered from the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, Rouhani’s bungling response to it underpins one of the other facets of public disenchantment with his performance.
Knowing that his administration was not able to make up for the economic losses resulting from the closure of businesses and government offices, and unable to come up with financial incentive packages like those offered by high-income countries, President Rouhani did not order a lengthy nationwide lockdown.
The result made Iran one of the first countries in the world to lift restrictions on the operation of retailers, enterprises, offices, shopping centers and public places as well as intercity trips.
He is also now in hot water for giving permission to schools and universities to reopen and was previously censured for not banning the mourning ceremonies of the Islamic month of Muharram, which involved massive gatherings of large groups of people in their hundreds and thousands across the country.
Some of his critics say the Rouhani administration was even incapable of enforcing such a simple requirement as making all citizens wear face masks as a precondition to being given services in offices and public places.
For example, in the metropolis of Tehran with a population of nearly 9 million, 28% of people do not wear protective masks. In the city of Qom, the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in Iran, the rate of people who don’t use masks amounts to 34%.
And the government of Rouhani has not stipulated any penalties for those who violate the health protocols.
There are many reasons to believe Rouhani has failed his constituents and is at the helm of a failed state, with bunches of unfulfilled promises in his overseas and domestic agenda.
It might sound simplistic, but perhaps it is the case that the mounting pressures of the United States and the near-death of the JCPOA, which was Rouhani’s sole hope for reviving Iran’s battered economy, have stripped him of the motivation to work on delivering his commitments, particularly given that he does not need votes for a re-election.
Or maybe he is admitting tacitly that as the country’s chief executive, and not the ultimate authority in a highly complex political structure, he cannot do more to improve the status quo.
Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.