During his campaign, he told voters that he would be a “lawyer” defending their rights. He criticized his main rival, Ebrahim Raisi, for his role in ordering the executions of political dissidents. He promised gender equality and a freer press.
All of that sounds pretty good. And for those in the west looking for an Iranian version of Mikhail Gorbachev, it makes a nice talking point. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe Rouhani will deliver, or even try to deliver, on any of these promises.
There are a few reasons for this. To start, Rouhani delivered the same line back in 2013 when he first won the presidency. We now know that human rights in Iran have further eroded during his tenure. A lot of this has been documented by the Center for Human Rights in Iran. The organization noted in October that Rouhani supported a law that would essentially place all Iranian media under government control. The center also documented a wave of arrests of journalists in November 2015, following Iran’s agreement to the nuclear bargain with the U.S and five other world powers. In the run-up to Friday’s vote, 29 members of the European Parliament wrote an open letter urging Iran to end its arrests, intimidation and harassment of journalists in the election season.
Sadegh Zibakalam, an activist and professor of political science at Tehran University, summed this up well in November: “Rouhani did not have the power to free political prisoners or end the house arrests, but he didn’t even pretend that he wanted to do something.”