In New Betrayal of Reformist Image, Rouhani Urges "Unity" Behind Supreme Leader

At the end of August media released a brief video that effectively mocked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for presenting an overwhelmingly positive image of his presidency and the state of Iranian society now that his second term in office has begun. Rouhani plainly declared in an interview with state media that “everyone is happy,” leading media to respond by saying that “political prisoners, jailed journalists, women's rights activists, and many others might not agree.”

The video also included other quotations from the Iranian president, highlighting such things as his supposed confidence in a jobs creation initiative. These were paired with facts and images reflecting widely-reported scandals from recent years, including widespread protests and a report about the phenomenon of homeless Iranians sleeping in open graves.

Notably, Rouhani was also quoted as saying, “We are led by the supreme leader [Ali Khamenei], who insists on greater unity and cooperation. We will continue this even better than before.” Such remarks can easily be regarded as acknowledgment of subservience to Khamenei, and indeed critics of the Iranian regime such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran have tended to point out that the system of Islamic governance involves vetting all candidates to high office for their perceived loyalty to the supreme leader.

Despite this fact, some observers expressed hope that Rouhani would represent a moderate challenge to the hardline authority of Supreme Leader Khamenei, which show increasingly close association with the paramilitary Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Rouhani campaigned on a series of reformist-sounding promises including the release of the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. After his first four years in office, Rouhani repeated these promises this past May in the run-up to his reelection, even though there had been little to know progress toward fulfillment of those promises during his first term.

This situation has frequently been described as the Rouhani administration’s capitulation to hardline pressures, although critics like the NCRI are quick to point out that Rouhani has a long history as a regime insider, thereby casting doubt upon even the initial seriousness of his moderate commitments. Whatever the case may be, the signs of “capitulation” have arguably increased since Rouhani’s May reelection. Although the president had suggested that a stronger mandate for his second term could lead to the fulfillment of sidelined promises, he quickly backpedaled on issues like the house arrests after securing victory.

In addition to saying that those issues would be largely in the hands of hardline authorities, Rouhani also reportedly consulted with the supreme leader on decisions that are specific to the president’s administration. Rouhani’s lingering supporters had been looking to his choices of cabinet ministers for signs that he would begin to uphold reform-minded promises such as the expansion of the role for women in the notoriously anti-feminist Islamic Republic. But as cabinet appointments were announced in the wake of his August 5 swearing-in ceremony, it was reported that his selections only consisted of individuals who had been approved by Khamenei. Accordingly, there were no women and no persons who could unequivocally be described as reformists.

This goes to show that for Rouhani and virtually all officials in the Iranian system, official actions are frequently influenced by an obsession with serving the interests of the supreme leader. The extent of this obsession was highlighted in the context of another IranWire article, which was published on Friday and featured the story of a student at Meshkat Seminary who had been tasked with delivering a speech during a visit from the supreme leader.

The student, Haydar Abassi, explained that he was given only vague guidelines for the content of that speech, consisting of examples of content from other speeches that Khamenei had and had not liked. Referring to the supreme leader as “sir,” the guidelines simply insisted that “one must talk in a way that Sir likes.” And the review board’s subsequent rejection of Abassi’s speech made it clear that one thing the supreme leader was not expected to like was any criticism of the Islamic Republic.

Although reflecting a highly conservative, Islamist point of view, Abassi’s proposed speech adopted a critical tone in order to make recommendations regarding the development of “Islamic civilization.” Abassi argued that the implementation of Iran’s revolutionary principles had become too top-down and had eschewed the participation of people like the seminary students on behalf of whom he was speaking. He went on to assert that the supreme leader had been surrounded with sycophants whose primary role was to reinforce Khamenei’s views about the policies and future of the Islamic Republic.

“Are all mental activities about revolutionary ideals only correct when they are limited to statements by Your Excellency?” Abassi asked in the speech. Its full text has been published online as a means of protesting the apparent censorship. In context with the widely recognized censorship of reformist media outlets and private expressions of pro-democratic dissent, this speech goes to show that censorship in the Islamic Republic is not specifically aimed at a particular ideology as much as it is aimed at any opinion that opposes the supreme leader and his closest associates.

Such associates are not strictly members of the clerical establishment or the government, however. They include paramilitary officers in the IRGC and even wealthy private citizens. “Insulting the supreme leader” is legally established as a crime in the Islamic Republic, but citizens have also been arrested and prosecuted for allegedly insulting lower level officials and business leaders. As an example, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported on Tuesday that an individual had been arrested and turned over to Cyber Police in Hormozgan Province for using the popular Telegram messaging app to share material that “defamed and insulted” the manager of one of the province’s building projects.

Such arrests seem to fly in the face of President Rouhani’s promises of a more open Iranian society, but many critics have observed that the regime stepped up its repression of dissent early in his presidency and never really scaled back. Independent journalists were the target of well-publicized mass arrests in November 2015, and the persistence of this crackdown was highlighted this week when the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that one of the targets of that crackdown had had her prison term unlawfully extended by three months just as it was about to expire.

Afarin Chitsaz was scheduled for release this month, but the judiciary announced at the last moment that the three months she had spent in hospital during her two year prison term would not count as time served, contrary to the provisions of Iranian law. Chitsaz was initially sentenced to 10 years for “assembly and collusion against national security” and “collaboration with enemy states,” but the sentence was reduced on appeal. The three-month extension is likely indicative of the belief among some hardline officials that she has been inadequately punished.

According to CHRI, the journalist’s mother was also sentenced to four months in prison for speaking to the media about Chitsaz’s case. Although the effects of this censorship are much more serious than in the case of Haydar Abassi, both incidents point to the fact that the silencing of dissent has not diminished under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, who continues to consult with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei over essential policies and decision-making.

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