Azadeh Moaveni, former Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and the author of Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran.
When Hassan Rouhani was campaigning for president during the spring of 2013, he chose a key as the overarching symbol of his electoral platform and vision for a new Iran. That key, he vowed, would open up the country’s tightly sealed political sphere and unlock the path to basic civil rights. One year into Rouhani’s tenure, the key has emerged as rich fodder for caricaturists, who have shown it to be alternately lost, blunted, or mismatched to its lock. Today, the president finds himself presiding over a roughly unchanged Iran.
The lawlessness and arbitrary detentions that overshadowed the era of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have continued unabated. The state regularly arrests civil society activists and journalists, and executes scores of prisoners without fair trial. The country’s once-vibrant NGO and media climate remains intimidated and quiet, and the political bullying that pushed reformist politicians and other critics to the margins of public life remains firmly in place. The sameness has been so evident that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon chastised Rouhani's government in March for not having “changed its approach” to the death penalty or the protection of free expression.
Since the start of this year, the state has executed nearly 400 prisoners, many of whom human rights groups believe were activists for ethnic minority rights spuriously charged with criminal offenses. Authorities have also imprisoned at least 30 journalists and technology specialists, and in a particularly aggressive move in July, arrested the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent.
Not only have Rouhani’s most notable electoral pledges about bringing Iranians digital freedom, dignity as citizens, and respect in private life remained elusive, the state has revitalized its efforts to enforce Islamic dress codes and limit women’s access to public spaces. Parliament recently held a session on the moral threat posed by leggings, and authorities forbade women from watching volleyball matches in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium.
The Rouhani government’s scorecard on human rights and civil society is now widely discussed even within his administration as its most alarming and public failure. The president’s allies argue that he must focus first on securing a nuclear deal, and then use the political capital such a victory would garner to push forward more contentious social and political reforms. That strategy, however, risks losing the Iranian public—who are seeing neither a spike in living standards nor greater freedom—along the way.
The sheer scope of ongoing violations under Rouhani’s watch has overshadowed the small measures his government has sought to enact. These include releasing a number of political prisoners and issuing press permits to previously banned publications like Iran-e Farda and Zanan-e Emrouz, which in their respective eras had been crucial to the debate and coverage of women’s and democracy issues. Both outlets were the sort of platforms where controversial state moves like the ban on vasectomies and promotion of larger families would have been discussed and carefully skewered.
Rouhani’s allies argue that the executions, arrests, and lingering Ahmadinejad hangover on civil society and the press are the work of the hardline judiciary. They say that blame should be placed on the pole of the establishment that is responsible.
His allies would also note that Rouhani has pushed back against hardliners far more forcefully than former president Mohammad Khatami, the last president who tried and failed to moderate Iran. Rouhani warned hardliners, in regard to securing Iranians free access to the internet, that the “era of the one-way pulpit” is over. In response to his opponents’ protestations about the erosion of Islamic culture, he said with exasperation, “You can’t drag people into heaven with whips.”
But ordinary Iranians, and indeed the international community, do not pause to make flowcharts of power distribution in the Islamic Republic before weighing Rouhani’s record. For them, the nezam, or state, is inseparable from the executive. A profound disillusionment is seeping into the youthful ranks of those who voted Rouhani into office. In their eyes, it is no great feat that Rouhani and his diplomats are on their way to securing a nuclear deal. The Supreme Leader has backed those endeavors, leaving the dirty work for the negotiating tables of Europe, not the political backrooms of Tehran.
For those expecting the Rouhani key to open at least a few doors, the president’s first year has been a disappointing one. Rouhani’s Iran is as lawless and intellectually cowed as the one he inherited, a country where a muscular intelligence apparatus makes the political decisions, not the politicians Iranians voted into office.