The Valid Concern for Hassan Rouhani
The Valid Concern for Hassan Rouhani
Those who said that there is only one voter in Iran weren’t wrong; it’s the supreme leader, whether it is Khomeini or Khamenei. The latest elections that made Ebrahim Raisi president are an eloquent testament to this. More eloquent is the history of the presidency in Iran, especially the events that follow the end of presidents’ terms.
Let’s start with the first among them, Abolhassan Banisadr. An obscure economics professor in Paris who had rallied around Khomeini, the supreme leader nominated him for the presidency after the revolution was victorious, saying: “This is my son.” With such a “program,” Banisadr ran in the elections and received more than 75 percent of the vote. But as soon as he disobeyed his “father,” he was brushed aside and declared a traitor and a criminal, and the “masses” demanded his head, so he fled to France as a refugee.
Banisadr’s presidency went on from February 4, 1980, to June 20, 1981.
The presidency of the republic began to stabilize as an institution in 1981, when the second president, Mohammad-Ali Rajai, was assassinated after he had “ruled” for 28 days.
The only exception to the history of the presidency was Ali Khamenei. He was elected president and was not only a longtime Khomeinist militant but also a fighter in the Iraq-Iran war. With these credentials and his proximity to Khomeini, he received 97 percent of the vote. After two terms, in 1989, he was chosen supreme leader because the man who had been selected before him, Hussein-Ali Montazeri, differed with Khomeini on a few issues, including the executions of 1988, and was consequently put under house arrest.
Hashemi Rafsanjani, a Khomeini disciple and the most powerful of the regime’s men, who had previously helped Khamenei reach the presidency in 1981, was elected president in 1989. His service and ties to Khamenei, who had by then become supreme leader, allowed him to distinguish himself on some issues, especially those related to the economy. After his two terms ended in 1997, things changed. The belated punishments followed successively: his sympathy for the “Green Revolution” in 2009 left him and his family isolated and criticized by Khamenei. In 2011, he lost his presidency of the Assembly of Experts. In 2013, he was barred from running for president. His death in 2017 raised doubts and speculation that challenged the natural death narrative, without preventing many streets in Iran from being named after Rafsanjani.
Mohammad Khatami was known as a minister of culture between 1982 and 1992. He introduced terms with a cultural lineage to the regime’s lexicon: openness, pluralism, dialogue... The 1990s needed this facade. It is true that he made some breakthroughs in form, but in practice, he continued to be the minister of culture with the title of President of the Republic. His second term in office, which witnessed 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, made him, as a facade, more important, especially in light of Iran’s keenness to benefit from these developments to the greatest extent possible. Nevertheless, the seriousness of those events exacerbated his exclusion as a decision-maker. Because politics in Iran, especially in such circumstances, are too dangerous to be left to intellectuals.
Khatami’s major “mistakes,” like those of Rafsanjani, were made after his two terms ended in 2005. In 2009, he withdrew from the presidential battle in favor of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, whom the regime swiftly labeled a traitor. At the end of that year, he was awarded, alongside the Iranian intellectual Dariush Shayegan, the “Global Dialogue Prize,” but he did not dare receive it. The Iranian media is prohibited from publishing his news, photos and statements.
After trying the intellectual Khatami, an anti-intellectual, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was chosen. Insularity replaced the calls for openness, accompanied by total hostility to any reform.
The new president, for his part, was not very well known. Between 2003 and 2005, he headed Tehran’s municipality after being appointed to the position. Among those he admired were the terrorist Navvab Safavi and his mentor Mesbah Yazdi, a cleric with fondness for superstition.
But Ahmadinejad’s problem is twofold: he is a chaotic Islamist who hates institutions and hierarchy, and he is also an Iranian nationalist who exposes the disguised nationalism of the Islamic regime. Hatred for his rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, not love to him, drove the supreme leader to endorse him during the 2009 elections, which has since been described as a sham, securing him a second term. That experience left him with an inflated self-confidence that pushed him to commit even more grave “missteps”: He made appointments without coordinating with the supreme leader, and he stuck to Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, appointing him First Vice President of the Republic despite the regime’s view that Mashaei was excessively nationalistic and selfish.
The delayed punishment didn’t take long. In 2017 and then in 2021, Ahmadinejad’s candidacy was rejected.
Hassan Rouhani is a former militant and exile. His record of service to the regime is excellent: he played political roles inside its institutions, fought on the front and worked in the diplomatic field (including Contra Gate). He also took part in repressing student movements in 1999 and remained Supreme National Security Council Secretary for 16 years.
After he is no longer president, Rouhani should do nothing, say nothing and support no one, as this would expose him to what his predecessors had been subjected to. His past service to the regime is tainted by four moments that could be used against him when needed.
He made some small reforms ala Khatami, and he made dangerous statements in support of freedoms and women’s rights. And although he didn’t say anything, some enthusiastic youths considered his election in 2013 a victory for the “Green Revolution” that had erupted four years prior. He also didn’t say anything, but observers and commentators have mentioned that, during the negotiations for a nuclear deal, he went against the supreme leader’s directives. Finally, his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was caught criticizing Qassem Soleimani.
The previous experiences of Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad do not bode well for predictions of a happy ending for Rouhani (of course, an ending like that of Banisadr is unlikely, though the new president is best known for his readiness to execute).