After Nuclear Deal, Will Iran’s Rouhani Deliver on Reforms?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the inauguration of the new parliament, Tehran, Iran, May 28, 2016 (AP photo by Ebrahim Noroozi).
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the inauguration of the new parliament, Tehran, Iran, May 28, 2016 (AP photo by Ebrahim Noroozi).

Millions of Iranians went to the polls in February in Iran’s first elections since Hassan Rouhani, a centrist cleric, rode a wave of hope to the presidency three years ago. Among them was the mother of 30-year-old Ali Shariati, who has been in prison since 2015. “My son Ali and a number of other political prisoners issued a statement encouraging people to vote,” she told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran after the election. “We voted. Now President Rouhani should carry out his promise from two years ago to free political prisoners.”

In 2013, Ali Shariati enthusiastically campaigned for Rouhani, who promised a government of “prudence and hope” and won by a large and surprising margin. Two years later, he was sentenced to more than a decade in prison for charges including “propaganda against the state” and “insulting the president” for making comments critical of the government on social media. While imprisoned he went on a hunger strike to call attention to his plight, and wrote an open letter imploring Rouhani to uphold the constitution and stand up to those who want to “create a crisis” for his popularly elected administration.

Shariati was on to something. Since Rouhani was elected, his conservative adversaries—generally referred to in Iran as “principlists” and in the West as “hard-liners”—have criticized his policies at best, and threatened to bury his Cabinet members at worst. Shariati may have underestimated their crushing power, or perhaps he stood up to them with full knowledge of the risks. Regardless of his intentions, he is among hundreds of Iranian citizens imprisoned by the Islamic Republic for expressing his personal opinions.

Despite his adversaries’ best efforts, Rouhani achieved his signature presidential campaign promise—resolving the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program—during his first term. Since then, however, average Iranians have yet to feel the effects of the deal’s most desired benefit, which was also his second campaign promise: an improved economy. Hard-liners are meanwhile feverishly working to undermine his pledge to loosen the Islamic Republic’s grip on people’s personal lives. In this sense, Rouhani’s promise of positive change hasn’t produced results on the ground. Will the “diplomatic sheikh,” as he’s known to some for his demonstrated skills in conflict resolution on the home front and the international stage, be able to deliver before Iran’s next presidential election in 2017, when he could face off against Iran’s most well-known hard-liner, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Change We Can Believe In?

“Under Rouhani, I personally expected to see fewer jailed journalists and bloggers, fewer newspapers shut down and more social freedoms implemented,” says Sanam, a 29-year-old information technology engineer from Isfahan. “This has not happened yet. But I am not ready to give up on him.”

Ardeshir, a 55-year-old accountant from Tehran, echoed Sanam’s hopes. “There is so much room for improvement of human rights in Iran that any move the president can implement will be welcome,” he says. “Iranians are educated and bright people. We would like to enjoy more freedoms, just like the rest of the world. I can’t think of anyone who is happy about being stopped by the morality police, or being afraid of constantly tiptoeing over their red lines.”

Rouhani’s conservative adversaries have criticized his policies at best, and threatened to bury his Cabinet members at worst.

Changing Iran’s civil and human rights record was never at the top of Rouhani’s public agenda, but he did promise to “break this security atmosphere” and uphold the “rights of the people” during his election campaign in 2013. That September, a little over a week before the new president made his much-anticipated trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was released from prison, along with 10 other political prisoners. While Rouhani has since made hope-inspiring comments about individual freedoms, he has failed to shorten the reach of the intelligence and security establishments, which are responsible for the ongoing harassment and arrests of Iranian citizens, as well as the judiciary. All of these powerful institutions are dominated by hard-liners who answer to the country’s ultimate decision-maker: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

As anyone in his position would do, Rouhani has tried to downplay his so-far unsuccessful battle. “If you go to the university campuses now in Iran, talk to members of academia, talk to the movie producers, the film directors, talk to the journalists, talk to the editors—those who express their opinions through their pen—if you ask them, they will tell you in no uncertain terms that today’s environment is quite different, better than we previously had,” the president told NPR in September 2015. “Now in the universities across the country,” he added, “a lot of groups are free—all groups, as a matter of fact—are free to conduct their political debates and political activities.”

His one caveat was that “realized progress” would come “slowly” to Iran and that success depended on whether reform was “creating more problems” or “more stability.”

While Iran has opened up in some respects, repression has continued in others. The Islamic Republic surprised everyone when it granted Larry Cohler-Esses, an American Jewish journalist who worked for the center-left, pro-Israel American newspaper the Forward, a visa for a seven-day reporting trip that resulted in a wide-ranging portrait of Iran’s complex society in August 2015. But while Cohler-Esses was able to leave the country freely, Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter with dual American-Iranian citizenship who had been detained in Tehran since July 2014, was left wondering whether he would ever leave his prison cell. Rezaian was released in January 2016.

Rezaian’s detention, which occurred amid heated nuclear negotiations at a time when diplomatic relations were at their most sensitive, was widely covered by international media, but many other politically motivated cases have gone unreported. The past two years have seen scores of Iranian journalists and rights activists detained and sentenced to long prison sentences in closed-door trials for charges like “spreading corruption on earth.” The arrests and harsh sentences are the result of cooperation, and sometimes competition, among the Ministry of Intelligence, the Revolutionary Guards and its increasingly powerful Intelligence Organization, and the judiciary, which is theoretically independent but whose head is appointed by the supreme leader.

While reformists, especially those associated with Iran’s stifled Green Movement, have been hard-liners’ most sought-after targets, anyone associated with the moderate Rouhani government has been at risk over the past two years. His conservative and ultra-conservative adversaries view him and his promises—no matter how guarded they have been—as an affront to their influence and power. After they failed in their push to include their own terms on the nuclear deal—a clear indication of their waning influence—hard-liners stepped up efforts to make Rouhani look weak at home.

The supreme leader, whose tacit support for the nuclear deal ultimately brought Rouhani’s biggest critics in line, may never rein in his powerful, loyal supporters on domestic issues. That’s why those Iranian newspapers that have dared to challenge official narratives have been shut down, why discrimination and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities has continued unabated, and why activists have resorted to starving themselves in prison to bring attention to their plight—all under Rouhani’s watch.

Scores of journalists and rights activists have been detained and sentenced in closed-door trials for charges like “spreading corruption on earth.”

In November 2015, Afarin Chitsaz, a columnist who wrote for Rouhani’s official newspaper, was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization, which is increasingly responsible for politically motivated arrests and oversees political prisoners in a designated ward. Most victims of politically motivated cases are denied access to lawyers for long periods of time, especially during what appears to be a mandatory three-month interrogation period, and are often denied due process. Chitsaz was arrested at the same time as three reformist journalists, including the prominent commentator Issa Saharkhiz, all of whom had openly expressed their reformist views. But Chitsaz, who never publicly aligned herself with the reformists, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “collaboration with foreign governments” and “assembly and collusion against national security” in April. Her arrest and harsh sentence were a clear expression of power by Rouhani’s two most powerful foes, the intelligence and security establishments. His words alone aren’t enough to change their course.

A seasoned politician, Rouhani was well aware of the magnitude of the task before him when he suggested in indirect terms, during his presidential campaign, that he favored freeing Iran’s political prisoners. Of course, he never referred to the men and women who have been detained by the Islamic Republic because of their personal views or activism as “political prisoners.” Indeed, if the term is used at all by officials, it’s to deny their existence. But he did say that it was “possible to bring about a condition, over the next year, in which not only those under house arrest but also those who have been imprisoned after the 2009 election would be released.” Rouhani was mainly referring to the Green Movement and its leaders—former presidential candidates and political insiders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard, a political leader in her own right—who have been under house arrest since 2011.

The Green Movement, which rocked the regime to its core, emerged from the peaceful protests by millions of Iranians who spilled into the country’s streets following the 2009 elections, chanting “Where is My Vote?” That year, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the presidential election with what was widely perceived to be a fraudulently inflated vote count. Mousavi, Rahnavard and Karroubi were put under house arrest—the government’s attempt to intimidate protesters into silence without making martyrs out of their leaders. Hundreds of Iranians were meanwhile detained, and protesters were beaten in the streets. Some were killed, the most famous being Neda Agha Soltan, whose death from a gunshot wound was captured in a YouTube video that was broadcast to the world.

A demonstrator wears a mask in the party’s color of green during a mass opposition rally, Tehran, Iran, June 15, 2009 (AP photo by Ben Curtis).

Nothing has been the same since. Iran’s hard-liners, especially the Revolutionary Guards, have been working to remind Iranians to never again pull a stunt like the mass protests of 2009. Indeed, seven years after the Green Movement, which is now referred to by hard-liners as the “sedition,” was essentially pushed underground by brutal state repression, people are still being sent to prison for allegedly supporting it.

The stifled movement’s leaders have not been forgotten, but their once-commanding voices have grown quieter with every year that has passed, as they remain forcibly isolated from society, their health deteriorating. Rights activists and civil society organizations not necessarily associated with the Green Movement have also been considerably weakened by the wear and tear of life in the Islamic Republic. Activists have not only been brutally repressed and exhausted by systematic governmental repression but, like the majority of Iranians, have also been struggling to get by economically.

The U.S.-led sanctions regime on Iran—which, coupled with governmental mismanagement, led to a near collapse of the country’s economy in 2013—was widely opposed by Iranian civil society, which supported the nuclear deal and echoed the majority of Iranians who said that sanctions hurt them more than government policy. While some sanctions have been lifted as a result of Iran upholding its end of the bargain in the nuclear deal, the fact that Iran is still largely shut out of the international banking system and is still recovering from years of economic mismanagement by the Ahmadinejad government—damage that Rouhani has been trying to correct with austerity measures—has left average Iranians with stagnating incomes and high unemployment. “Iran’s economy is basically flat,” says Djavad Salehi, an economics professor at Virginia Tech University with expertise on Iran. “The poor are the angriest, but the lower-income earners are angry as well.” Although the middle class is no worse off than before, “it hasn’t really seen any benefits yet, either.”

Seven years after the Green Movement was pushed underground by brutal state repression, people are still being sent to prison for allegedly supporting it.

According to Sussan Tahmasebi, an expert on Iranian civil society and women’s rights, Iranian activists have not been exempt. Unlike civil society organizations in the U.S., “activists in Iran, for the most part, are a volunteer force. That’s why they suffer so much when there are economic problems,” she says. “Improving the economy is the key to improving civil rights.” Tahmasebi added that after years of repression, activists have not only been forced to flee but have also been arrested, while those who have remained in Iran have faced the same serious economic problems as their compatriots. “Now that the space is opening up, it’s harder to organize them, because people are still trying to find their footing in their ordinary life,” she says.

Where Does Rouhani Stand?

The Islamic Republic’s reform movement emerged in the late 1990s, marked by the presidential victory in 1997 of Mohammad Khatami, who ushered in an opening that was eventually stamped out by hard-liners. At the time, Rouhani was firmly entrenched among the ruling elite, advising the supreme leader, Khatami and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and through his participation in a number of oversight and advisory councils. In an early blow to reformists, student-led protests sparked by the closure of a reformist newspaper in July 1999 resulted in a crackdown that saw more than 1,500 arrests. Rouhani, then deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament and secretary of the Supreme National Security Committee, reportedly called the students “bandits and saboteurs” and voiced support for the crackdown. If his comments at the time were merely a reflection of his desire to maintain his position in government, he didn’t take the opportunity to speak out against the large-scale crackdown in 2009, either. But he did have something to say about those protests three years later—one month before he was voted into office. “In the beginning when people came out onto the streets, those were natural and popular demonstrations, which should have been attended to,” he said in a May 2013 speech at Tehran University. He added that he didn’t favor the continuation of the protests, and had suggested at the time a recount of the vote by randomly selecting 20 percent of the ballot box.

The soft-spoken, Scottish-educated cleric’s softer posture was in direct contrast to that of his rival conservative presidential candidates. This was the main reason pundits in the West believed he didn’t have a chance of winning the election. Khamenei, supposedly the ultimate arbitrator in Iran’s factional political system, had sided with the hard-liner, Ahmadinejad, in 2009, effectively supporting the jailing of Karroubi and Mousavi, who had served as prime minister during Khamenei’s own presidency in the 1980s. It seemed impossible that the supreme leader would allow Rouhani, who people had started to liken to Khatami, to win. In retrospect, it seems likely that Rouhani promised Khamenei he was not interested in radical change, but rather in regime stability and success. Indeed, Rouhani’s campaign, though primarily directed at appealing to reform-minded Iranians, was ultimately about national reconciliation, and he has remained steady on that front. “Those who wish to see differences between me and the branches of government and the supreme leader will take this wish to the grave,” Rouhani said at a June ceremony commemorating the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic’s first supreme leader. “With the guidance of Supreme Leader Khamenei, all the branches of the government are united and there is no dissension between the branches of the government and the supreme leader.”

But whereas Khamenei promotes conservative and ultra-conservative Islamic values and harbors deep suspicion and distaste for Western policies and culture, Rouhani advocates for reducing the government’s meddling in private affairs and pushes for Iran to engage with the world. That kind of tension cannot be sustained indefinitely. At some point in the very near future, Rouhani will have to choose whether he wants his presidential legacy to define him as a reform-minded leader or another loyal servant of Khamenei’s regime.

Rouhani and his ministers have accordingly faced questions from the international press about Iran’s human and civil rights records throughout the nuclear talks, and both he and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been particularly sensitive to criticism from Iranians living abroad, many of whom initially welcomed Rouhani’s election. At a June 2016 press conference in Oslo, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the co-founder of a Norway-based organization that advocates for human rights in Iran, asked Zarif why he had neglected to mention that Rouhani’s electoral victory was to due to support not only for his promises to end the sanctions regime and engage with the world, but also to free political prisoners. Zarif, an American-educated, seasoned diplomat who has usually been cool and charismatic on the international stage, uncharacteristically went on the defensive. “I think the people of Iran who went to the polls to vote for members of parliament only two months ago, have shown that at least back home in Iran, they are happier than you are here looking from a distance. So, let’s put a little grain of salt on your sort of Iran-phobic depiction of Iran,” he said in response.

At some point soon, Rouhani will have to choose whether he wants his presidential legacy to define him as a reform-minded leader or another loyal servant of Khamenei’s regime.

To his credit, Zarif, who may be more popular at home than Rouhani for his crafty handling of the nuclear negotiations and quick-witted responses to some of his loudest foreign critics, did acknowledge that Iran has a human rights problem. “I’m not here to defend or to say that human rights in Iran cannot improve, and it has been the political platform of President Rouhani to improve the human rights situation,” he said at the same press conference. “And I believe first and foremost the Iranian people deserve improvement in human rights.”

The exchange between Zarif and Amiry-Moghaddam, an Iranian-born, foreign-based human rights activist and a dual national, was particularly noteworthy, given that Iranian hard-liners have particularly targeted for harassment dual nationals who have traveled to Iran following Rouhani’s inauguration, perhaps under the belief that they would be safe. Dual nationals—who are often highly educated and from the upper-middle and upper classes—could be a great resource for cash-strapped Iran, which has, due to its economic woes and isolation, suffered from decades of brain drain. But hard-liners suspiciously view them as foreigners first, while prosecuting them as Iranian citizens. By jailing them, Rouhani’s adversaries are seeking to highlight his powerlessness, but also that of outside governments, including the U.S.

In January, four U.S.-Iranian dual nationals, including Jason Rezaian, were released in a prisoner-swap deal that required the U.S. to pardon or drop cases against 21 Iranians. But the past few months have seen more dual nationals detained, not only to embarrass Rouhani, but perhaps also to be used as pawns for future prisoner swaps. The Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, who passionately campaigned for the modification of U.S. sanctions to facilitate shipments of medicine into Iran, has been imprisoned since Oct. 15, 2015—the same day the conservative-led parliament endorsed the nuclear deal. His friends pointed to an article published anonymously in the Daily Beast that smeared Namazi and his family without giving them a chance to respond. His father, also a dual national and former UNICEF official who was reportedly lured to Tehran with the promise of being able to visit his son, was arrested two days before the parliamentary elections in February. Scholar Haleh Esfandiari, herself a dual national who was detained for 105 days in 2007, suggested that Siamak Namazi’s father was being used to force his son to make a false confession.

Other high-profile cases include Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British citizen working with the Reuters Foundation who has been imprisoned since April, and Homa Hoodfar, an Iranian-Canadian retired professor specializing in women’s studies, who has been detained since June. On July 11, Tehran’s prosecutor announced that all three had been indicted, but no charges have been formally announced. Rouhani “appears to have given up on efforts to end the most blatant violations of human rights,” Esfandiari wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Glimmers of Hope?

So far, 2016 has seen an uptick in arrests of Iranians and dual nationals; a targeted campaign against Iranian Instagram models; last-minute cancelations of Persian musical concerts; and the resignation of a prominent human rights lawyer. But even after years of disappointment for human rights advocates, there are some bright spots, particularly in the Iranian art scene.

Film director Asghar Farhadi and photographer Newsha Tavakolian have gained international fame with their moving personal and political critiques of Iranian society. Asked in May 2013 whether he had noticed changes in state-imposed censorship under Rouhani, Farhadi said it was unpredictable. “Seen from the outside, maybe it can be very surprising how under such pressure it is possible to still make films that have an impact and that give an impression of freedom and strength,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “This is because our filmmakers and artists in general go on fighting and finding ways of avoiding the censorship and creating despite all these restrictions. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed.”

Tavakolian was more direct. “I am from the generation that, so many times, was promised change, progress and a better future,” she told the Financial Times in March 2016. “We were full of hope and optimism but those promises were never kept. So I don’t want to go through that again because emotionally it was very heavy on us. What I want to say to the government is ‘prove it to me.’”

“Don’t think that Iranians are under bars. You have a lot of freedom in Iran.”

Some Iranian actresses have meanwhile been making political statements—intentionally or not—since Rouhani took office. Two well-known film stars who had appeared in Farhadi’s films set off firestorms at home while making public appearances abroad. Conservatives implored the judiciary to sentence actress Leila Hatami to prison for greeting a man who was not related to her by kissing him on the cheek at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2014. She later apologized. In June of this year, also at Cannes, Taraneh Alidoosti accidentally flashed her tattoo of the “woman power” symbol, resulting in outcry and debate among Iranians on social media. “Keep calm and YES I’m a feminist,” she tweeted in response. Both women were publicly shamed by conservatives, who accused them of breaking the law and misrepresenting Iranians abroad. But perhaps because they were celebrities, they were never formally charged.

Meanwhile, some actresses have taken to social media, where they can be more open than when speaking to Iran’s heavily censored press, to express solidarity with Iranian political prisoners. Although Twitter is illegal in Iran, public figures, including the supreme leader, use it to address their followers, while Iranians with access to technology that allows them to bypass state filters use it to discuss and debate sensitive issues. When Narges Mohammadi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in May for her peaceful activism against the death penalty, went on a hunger strike to protest the refusal by prison officials to allow her to speak via phone to her two young children, Iranians took part in a Twitter campaign to bring attention to her case; Alidoosti and the well-known actress Mahnaz Afshar tweeted their support. In Iran, where the content of your social media postings can land you in jail, that’s a big deal.

Iranians are also seeing more freedom—regulated by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance—in other visual arts like painting. “During Rouhani’s era, if he hasn’t delivered on his promises, he has at least instilled hope in the minds of the people—normal people and artists,” says Fery Malek-Madani, an art curator specializing in Iranian women artists. “The plastic arts, photography and video installations are less under censorship than cinema, theater or literature,” she adds. “If they are shown in private galleries—everything depends upon gallery owners’ discretion.”

Iranian demonstrators chant slogans during an annual rally in front of the former U.S. Embassy, Tehran, Iran, Nov. 4, 2015 (AP photo by Vahid Salemi).

Malek-Madani, herself a dual citizen whose organization highlights the work of lesser-known Iranian artists, described the evolution of the Iranian art scene from 2001 until now as progressing from classical and traditional expressions of Iran and Islam to artists thinking “globally and universally.”

“Don’t think that Iranians are under bars. You have a lot of freedom in Iran,” she adds. “Of course, you don’t have freedom like you do in Europe. But in Iran there’s still a lot you can express.” Malek argues that the art scene has been less constrained during Rouhani’s term than in the Ahmadinejad years. She did, however, point out that it’s not clear where Rouhani’s “red line” is, making it in some ways more dangerous for artists to unintentionally break the rules. “I can’t say that artists are repressed in Iran,” she says. “But what is terrible in Iran, for me, is the arbitrary nature of it all. If you have the same rules and laws for everyone, then you can draw the red line, but sometimes it’s just not clear.”

Elections Reveal Public Mood

“I voted for Rouhani because the other candidates were too conservative for my taste, and he seemed to have the backing of reformists,” says Sanam, the IT engineer. “What we can definitely use more of in our country is reform. I feel like Rouhani is on track with keeping the promise of resolving the nuclear issue, but he still has a long way to go. We should have patience to see what he can achieve.”

Iran’s last two elections surprised almost everyone. In the 2013 presidential ballot, few predicted the success of Rouhani, a centrist cleric who had years of government service under his belt but wasn’t widely known to the public. In the 2016 parliamentary polls, few foresaw moderates making substantial gains amid record-breaking disqualification rates. Yet in both cases, despite having the deck in their favor, hard-liners suffered substantial setbacks. Indeed, like the U.S. Republican Party, political conservatives in Iran have been struggling to present a unified front against centrists and reformists, whose ability to build up their coalition has brought moderation back to Iranian politics.

Back in 2013, after eight years of impasse between Ahmadinejad’s administration and world powers over the Iranian nuclear program, the rise and fall of the Green Movement, and against the backdrop of a severely depressed economy due to sanctions and government mismanagement, the prospect of reforms that would lead to Iran opening up seemed dismal inside and outside the country. The Washington Post’s hawkish editorial board went so far as to adamantly declare that Rouhani would “not be allowed to win.” Of course, Rouhani did win with a first-round victory. His success would not have been possible, however, without the backing of a reformist-centrist coalition led by Khatami, a reformist, and Rafsanjani, a centrist.

Khatami, the little-known cleric at the forefront of Iran’s reform movement when he was first voted into office in 1997, was forbidden from making media appearances in 2015, and the media has been banned from publishing his comments and photo—a move that Rouhani publicly opposed. But the attempts, led by Iran’s supreme leader, to silence a former president without making a martyr out of him, led the reform movement to change its political calculus. Khatami convinced the only reformist candidate in 2013, Mohammadreza Aref, to withdraw and unite behind the centrist Rouhani a few days before the election. Khatami’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering, particularly through social media, also resulted in moderates making substantial gains in the 2016 elections, which, as in 2013, saw high voter turnout. Beneath all this was the “hope” that brought Rouhani’s victory in 2013, and many Iranians, like Sanam, are still hoping for something better three years later.

“I feel like Rouhani is on track with keeping the promise of resolving the nuclear issue, but he still has a long way to go.”

More coalitions emerged during Iran’s February 2016 elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body constitutionally endowed with the power of choosing the next supreme leader. Iran’s political system doesn’t rely on parties, but the country’s biggest political factions could be loosely defined as reformist, centrist and conservative. In parliamentary elections, candidates usually run on lists made up of like-minded politicians, sometimes on multiple lists and sometimes independently. The Guardian Council vets all election applicants; criteria range from age to political experience to candidates’ views of the Islamic Republic. As the number of election applicants has risen over the years, so too has the disqualification rate, which has overwhelmingly targeted reformists.

With their candidates overwhelmingly disqualified, reformist-backed lists this year included many unknown candidates—a way of sidestepping the vetting faced by better-known figures—alongside centrists and even some conservatives. Political bigwigs from across Iran’s political spectrum endorsed the lists, which were designed to gain majorities in the country’s individual electoral districts. The strategy worked particularly well in Tehran, which holds the most seats of any electoral district; candidates from the List of Hope, backed by Khatami, took all of the capital’s 30 parliamentary seats. Describing itself as the “second step” to Rouhani’s 2013 campaign, the list was mostly composed of moderates, including some conservatives, who supported the nuclear deal, better foreign relations and decreased government interference in citizens’ personal lives.

Reformists, who favor working within the Islamic Republic to bring change that essentially involves Iran opening up domestically and internationally, weren’t able to gain a parliamentary majority. Still, they surprised even themselves with what they did achieve in the face of massive disqualifications that prevented the vast majority of them from running in the first place. Ultimately, Iran’s parliament, 70 percent of which was previously dominated by conservatives, underwent a major shakeup in terms of the political affiliations of the lawmakers. Reformist- and centrist-backed coalitions, made up of moderate politicians and some conservatives, succeeded in replacing many anti-Rouhani parliamentarians with members of their ranks or those who could be brought to their side.

Iran’s new parliament also includes more women, with the election of a record 18, up from only 9. That number ultimately dropped to 17 after the elected reformist legislator Minoo Khaleghi was disqualified for allegedly appearing in public with her hair uncovered—a charge she adamantly denied. The new parliament, which convened in June 2016, will also have fewer clerics than ever before. Meanwhile candidates supported by Rouhani and his allies, including the increasingly reformist-leaning Rafsanjani, claimed 52 of the assembly’s 88 seats elected to the Assembly of Experts. The assembly is still dominated by conservatives, but the unseating of well-known hard-liners and the election of several conservatives who may be more amenable to Rouhani-favored policies once again showed that no matter how many obstacles are put in its way, Iran’s reform movement has not thrown in the towel.

Great Expectations

“We supported Rouhani, but so far he has been like the rest of them,” says Manijeh, a 48-year-old housewife from Mashhad. “I mean the nuclear case is done with, but what has that given us? The government says they are curbing inflation but I have yet to see commodity prices fall. The middle class is suffering. I don’t know if they know how to fix the economy, and now they don’t have the excuse of sanctions anymore. I still support him, but if he wants to get re-elected, he needs to deliver on his promises.”

Iran’s parliament plays host to lively policy debates, approves the budget and can impeach ministers, but its power is severely limited. Not only does the vetting process ensure that parliamentarians never challenge the supreme leader, the unelected 12-member Guardian Council can also veto legislation. The supreme leader and the president can also stand in its way. That was perhaps most clearly illustrated by Ahmadinejad, who not only publicly jousted with the body, as well as with Khamenei, but went so far as to refuse to implement approved laws.

“We supported Rouhani, but so far he has been like the rest of them.”

In a related sense, Rouhani’s power to satisfy his reformist supporters’ hopes isn’t dependent on the parliament or guaranteed by the office he holds, but decided by his ability to move the supreme leader to a more moderate center. “Rouhani’s real hope for change, unless he wants to mobilize people on the street level, exists in his ability to convince Khamenei that it’s for the best of the regime if he makes adjustments,” says Alex Vatanka, an expert on Iran with the Washington-based Middle East Institute. He adds, “Do you have people dragging Rouhani in one direction, or is it Rouhani who has to shape and manage the expectations of the people and his supporters?”

A recent poll suggests that while popular support for Rouhani remains high, it is slipping, mainly due to the fact that most Iranians have not felt the economic benefits of the nuclear deal, which Rouhani oversold to the public. As he nears the end of his first presidential term, analysts are already talking about why Rouhani may not serve a second one. That would make him unique among the Islamic Republic’s presidents, all of whom—apart from one who was impeached and another who was assassinated in the turbulent early years of the revolution—were re-elected.

Rouhani was Khatami’s chief nuclear negotiator when Iran temporarily suspended its nuclear enrichment program in 2003 and voluntarily agreed to sign a complementary agreement, the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, that placed additional transparency requirements, including more intrusive inspections, on its nuclear program. All this required Khamenei’s approval, but Rouhani was the driver. He was also president when the country finally signed the nuclear deal, proving that in addition to being able to sway the supreme leader to his side, he can also deliver on his promises to the public. But while he ultimately received Khamenei’s crucial backing for the nuclear deal, a monumental achievement reached during his first term, he faces a much harder and lonelier battle when it comes to satisfying the other great expectations for economic recovery and improved human rights created by his first presidential campaign.

Jasmin Ramsey is an Iranian-born journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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