Much of the international media’s coverage of the elections has suggested that they could pave the way to the reforms that were promised but never delivered following the 2013 election of so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani. Without saying much about this talking point, The Guardian outlines seven specific human rights issues that have persisted under Rouhani’s tenure.
For some optimistic observers of Iranian affairs, progress on these points will be the proof of a moderating trend inside the regime. But others deny that such reforms are possible even after a major change in the makeup of the Iranian parliament. And the latter viewpoint received a good deal of expression in media reports and editorials on Friday.
The Guardian report arguably contributes to this perception of a lack of reform, in that it highlights some of the ways in which the Rouhani presidency has disappointed those who expected improvements in the domestic situation. It points out, for instance, that that presidency has been characterized by a steep rise in the rate of executions, as well as the continuation of executions of juvenile offenders and political prisoners. It qualified reports of a plan to eliminate the death penalty for some drug offenders, saying “it is unclear if that effort is serious.”
But for many critics of the Iranian regime, it is abundantly clear that neither this effort nor any claim of reform in the Islamic Republic is serious. An editorial in the National Interest claimed that the Iranian national elections had largely been an exercise in “rebranding hardliners as moderates.” It reiterated that almost all reformist candidates were eliminated ahead of the elections and that many of those who remained in the reformist camp have notorious records of contributing to campaigns of assassination and calling for the harsh punishment of opposition leaders and dissidents.
These apparently hardline records were highlighted soon after the elections in documents and press releases from the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The opposition group’s president, Maryam Rajavi also attended an event at the Brussels headquarters of the European Parliament on Wednesday, according to an article published in The Street. In her remarks, Rajavi expressed the NCRI’s view that reform from inside the regime is simply not possible, since the latest elections were only “a race among present and former officials in charge of torture and executions.”
An editorial that appeared on Friday in Asharq al-Awsat took a slightly different approach to the topic, denying the claim that the reformist camp even “won” the election but also saying that it would not matter if they had. The article repeatedly referred to the existing regime as “un-reformable,” and it sharply criticized Western narratives that suggest that the newly elected parliament or any other structure of Iranian government could lead toward reform.
At the same time, the Awsat editorial agreed with the assessment of the NCRI that the National Interest that those Iranian officials who have been championed as reformists both during and before the latest elections are actually reformists. In fact, the editorial notes that many such individuals have specifically avoided those descriptions, meaning that such terms “exist only in the imagination of Obama and some delusional analysts in the West.”
The Weekly Standard also published an editorial on this topic on Friday, in which it denied any evidence of the existence of what it called “discreet evolutionary mullahs and laymen,” who had exhibited any self-awareness about the fragility and social isolation of the regime. The editorial also said of those serious reformists who supported the Rouhani-affiliated “List of Hope” in the recent elections: “They’ve become forlorn, desperate to see hope even in men who once literally gave the orders to jail and beat them.”
And looking beyond past records, yet another editorial in Al Arabiya addressed current views on an important specific issue, namely Iran’s contribution to the war effort in defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The author finds no criticism of that issue by so-called reformists, and no apparent difference of opinion between them and hardliners. He adds that even if such a difference existed, it would not be expressed since the Syria issue has been highlighted as a political red line by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Within the Iranian system of absolute authority, crossing such a red line would effectively end the political career of a sitting official. Indeed, the NCRI communications regarding the electoral process emphasized that the vetting process for all candidates to high office specifically excludes people on the basis of apparent lack of adherence to the views of the supreme leader.