In Western political circles, where hopes for lasting detente are now running high, Hassan Rouhani remains a diplomatic darling. At home, however, Iran’s new president is rapidly running out of time. With his first 100 days in office now up, Mr. Rouhani faces mounting resentment from an Iranian public, which — having elected him last summer for his “reformist” credentials — has little to show for its trust.
Earlier this year, while still on the campaign trail, Mr. Rouhani crafted a political platform of some 46 promises. This agenda encompassed pledges to reform and improve the Islamic republic’s beleaguered economy, to reduce tensions with the West and — most significantly, from a local perspective — to serve as a champion for the embattled human rights of ordinary Iranians. Indeed, it was these promises that set Mr. Rouhani apart from other presidential hopefuls, and allowed him to coast to victory in Iran’s June election. Yet today, beyond his government’s participation in nuclear negotiations with the West (which have just yielded a preliminary, confidence-building accord), all of these promises remain unmet.
In his most recent assessment of Iran’s internal conditions, Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations‘ stalwart special rapporteur on Iranian human rights, found that “systematic violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights continue to characterize the human rights situation in the country.” Examples of these deformities are legion.
Freedom of speech remains under fire in the Islamic republic. In the run-up to Iran’s June presidential balloting, an estimated 40 journalists were languishing behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a media-freedom watchdog group. Today, rights advocates say, the situation is even worse.
The Iranian government’s campaign against independent media, meanwhile, continues apace. Last month, the reformist Bahar newspaper became the latest to be banned by Iran’s official state media oversight agency. Its crime? Undermining Islamic values through an editorial “that expressed doubt the Prophet Muhammad had appointed a successor.” The closure follows a familiar pattern: Since 2000, Iran’s judiciary has shut down more than 120 reformist newspapers for deviating from established ideological guidelines in both religion and politics.
Meanwhile, justice in the Islamic republic remains capricious — when it exists at all. Democracy think tank Freedom House estimates that despite Mr. Rouhani’s campaign pledges to end systematic violations of Iranians’ human rights, some 800 political dissidents currently languish in prison. So do at least three prominent opposition figures — Green Movement leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, as well as Mr. Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard — who have remained under house arrest or detention for more than 1,000 days.
The rate of executions carried out by the Iranian regime, meanwhile, is actually increasing. In a move dubbed “indefensible” by advocates such as Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the pace of capital punishment in Iran since Mr. Rouhani took office appears to have quickened. Indeed, since Mr. Rouhani’s inauguration on Aug. 5, at least 125 executions have taken place within the Islamic republic. As of the end of October, an estimated 474 individuals have been executed this year, according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center — putting Iran on track to surpass last year’s grisly total of 522.
It’s no wonder, then, that Mr. Rouhani’s government is under growing pressure at home to show some signs of tangible progress. It’s also why Iran’s president has had so much personally riding on a nuclear deal with the West. An agreement of the kind recently hammered out in Geneva will lessen economic pressure on the Islamic regime and provide Mr. Rouhani with some much-needed political breathing room.
Nuclear diplomacy notwithstanding, though, more and more Iranians already understand what the West will grasp soon enough: that Iran’s president is simply a straw man for the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the clerical elite, and that his pledges of reform were little more than empty campaign promises.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council. Mollie Adatto is a researcher at the council.