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Iran’s Sham Elections: A Political Version of Ta’azieh | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani takes part in a news conference near the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

In any elections, including the ersatz ones held in Iran, the voter is expected to make his choice on the basis of the candidates’ personality, record and programme.

Taking those three factors into account, how might Iranian voters judge the incumbent, Hojat al-Islam Hassan Rouhani who is seeking a second term?

Let’s start with personality.

With the talent of novelist, Rouhani has re-written his life story to suit the circumstances.

In 1970s he was in England trying to learn English and study textile design. When the clouds of revolution appeared he donned a clerical garb and cast himself as a student of theology, spending a few weeks in the “holy” city of Qom.

He also changed his family name from Fereidun, the name of the mythological king who is regarded as the father of Iranian nationalism, to Rouhani, an Arabic word which in Persian means both “clerical” and “spiritual”.

Knowing that some Iranians like many others in the so-called “developing world” attach great importance to academic titles, especially when obtained from Western establishments, Rouhani shopped around for a “doctorate” in Europe. Initially, he wanted to enroll in a French university and obtain one of those “Doctorats d’Universite” that French issue to please people from the “Third World.”

However, a break in diplomatic relations between Tehran and Paris, due to the Iranian Embassy in Paris having become a nest of terrorists, killed that scheme. By that time, Rouhani – elevated to the post Secretary of the High Council of National Security – had found a friend in the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. That led to Straw advising, and, later, arranging for Rouhani to obtain a “doctorate” from a British University. The establishment chosen was the privately owned Caledonian University in Glasgow, Scotland, which was prepared to grant Rouhani a Ph.D in “Islamic law.”

Rouhani has been in or around the inner circles of powers in Tehran for four decades.

In his memoirs, Rouhani claims that, aged 12, he was close to the late Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, regarded as the regime’s strongman before he was blown up by terrorists in 1981.

That may or may not be true. But the fact is that Rouhani always took care to be close to the “strongman” of the day. That led him into the entourage of Hashemi Rafsanjani who between 1988 and 1997 really ran the show in Tehran.

At the same time, however, Rouhani maintained close ties with the security services and the military including with
a stint as head of the so-called Khatam al-Anbia cartel that runs the military’s vast business empire.

When it comes to personality, Rouhani is an adept of Machiavellianism in its purest form. What matters to him is a share of power. If that means fondling the silken handkerchief he does it, and if the iron fist is required he is prepared.

His friends say he is a reformist and a moderate.

However, he has never advocated, let alone introduced, any reform whatsoever. He is an “Islah-talab” (seeker of reform), but never tells what is it that he is seeking. As for his claim of moderation, he misses no opportunity to boast about his revolutionary zeal. A moderate revolutionary, however, is like someone who is moderately pregnant.

In the current campaign Rouhani has cast himself as leader of the opposition, blasting other contenders for “four decades of repression.”

This may be because he has realized that those who have the final say in this charade may have decided to ditch him, and has thus decided to secure a measure of respectability.

It is also possible that by lashing out at his own regime he hopes to fool a section of the Iranian middle classes to go to the polls and give the sham exercise some credibility.

It would require a fantastic leap of imagination to vote for Rouhani on the strength of his character.

What about his record?

Well, according to official data, under Rouhani’s watch Iran has experienced four years of negative or zero economic growth.

The Islamic Majlis Committee on Economy (Asl 44) reports double-digit inflation which may hit 50 per cent. The Majlis also reports that youth unemployment tops 25 per cent while thousands of privately-owned businesses have filed for bankruptcy. Official indexes concord that Iran today is poorer than it was four years ago.

Rouhani’s promise of a torrent of direct foreign investment pouring into Iran after his nuclear deal with Washington has not yet brought in a single farthing under the so-called nuclear deal, Iran has put large chunks of its industry, scientific policy and international trade under foreign mandate for between 10 to 25 years (and in some case indefinitely) through the P5+1 group led by the United States.

Rouhani’s foreign policy has been a total failure.

Iran is more isolated than ever and the so-called “Looking East” – an ersatz alliance with Russia – is tightly controlled by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. Rouhani doesn’t even dare question Iran’s costly involvement in the Syrian and Yemeni quagmires.

Rouhani’s record is also questionable on national security. According to Islamic Security Minister Alavi, Iran has suffered over 100 terrorist attacks from across the borders with Iraq and Pakistan.

What about human rights?

Under Rouhani Iran has suffered the largest number of executions since 1988, becoming world number-one. Iran is also number-two in the world for political prisoners and prisoners of conscience (after Turkey). Shutting down newspapers and websites, arresting people on whimsy charges, banning concerts, and black-listing books and writers are all current practices.

According to official media, corruption, always a key feature of Khomeinist rule, is running out of control.

According to the government, 25 per cent of Iran’s imports come through illegal ports and black-market channels controlled by Islamic security and military networks. According to Security Minister Alavi at least 53 top officials of Rouhani’s government are holders of US “Green Cards”. Some are also agents of Western companies.

Interestingly, Rouhani has admitted almost all of that in his TV debates with other candidates. His defense is that he has no control over the economy, security, military, foreign policy and judiciary. That is perfectly true. He is an actor playing president in a political version of the “ta’azieh” the traditional Persian passion-play.