Still, Rouhani demonstrated during his first term that he had no intention of challenging the violence and extremism of the clerical regime.
The presidential election was boycotted by many Iranians, in an effort to draw international attention to the lack of choice where candidates are vetted by unelected clerics and judiciary officials based on their loyalty to the supreme leader and the ruling theocracy.
Rouhani is a veteran regime insider, who served as a senior security official during the systematic execution of 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Many of those executed were supporters of the main opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).
Tom Ridge, former US Secretary of Homeland Security and governor of Pennsylvania writes in an article for Arab News that, “In 2015, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany brokered a deal with the Iranian regime, imposing restrictions on the Iranian regime’s nuclear program in exchange for tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief. The agreement has rightly been criticized for offering too many concessions to Iran’s ruling theocracy, while effectively abandoning the original goal of definitively halting permanently the mullahs’ march to nuclear weapons.”
This approach was based on the expectation that Iranian behavior and US-Iran relations would improve under Rouhani’s presidency.
Instead, Tehran upped its anti-Western rhetoric, fired illicit ballistic missile tests, and officers of the Iranian military and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have made declarations of readiness for war.
“Time and again, the US and its allies have bought into the Tehran ‘moderate versus hard-liner’ narrative, despite proof to the contrary,” writes Ridge.
During Rouhani’s first term, dual nationals were put behind bars to use as bargaining chips. Thousands of Iranians have been incarcerated on political charges, and executions take place en masse, while other prisoners are denied basic medical care and sanitation. The Rouhani administration saw a spike in death sentences, and during his first term, more than 3,000 people were executed, including political prisoners, women and juveniles.
According to Ridge, “Less than a week before the election, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a statement practically begging Iranians to vote regardless of their political views. But by phrasing his call in terms of “maintaining the regime’s authority,” he effectively added to the incentive for a boycott by all those rejecting that authority.”
Iranians stayed away. By doing this, they expressed their frustration with a political system in which both factions act against the interests of the people, and exhibited support for the alternatives to those factions, as well.
Seen to be on the rise, is support for opposition organizations like the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the MEK. Ridge says, “For example, I and many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle are planning to attend an international convention in Paris, which is expected to draw upward of 100,000 Iranian expatriates from around the world, and will be broadcast live to millions of Iranians. Even though support for the MEK can be punished with a death sentence inside Iran (as was the case in the brutal massacre of 1988), the willingness to take such a risk should tell us something about how limited the options are for regime-sanctioned political expression.”
Ridge calls the regime ‘fragile’, and says that the international community can effectively encourage the democratic transformation of Iran by supporting the democratic alternatives to the current regime. He urges that rather than buying into the moderate versus hard-liner narrative, the US and its allies get it right this time.