Analysis

Eyeing Election, Iran's 'Reformer' President Rohani Struggles for a Second Term

The country’s liberals are disappointed in Hassan Rohani, while conservatives are breathing easier with another president: Trump.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a press conference after a meeting with the Armenian president in Yerevan on December 21, 2016.
KAREN MINASYAN/AFP

In April Omid Kokabee was released from Evin Prison in Tehran, after having served “only” half of his 10-year sentence. There’s no way of knowing what really led the Iranian regime to yield on the second half; perhaps it’s the kidney cancer he developed while he was imprisoned. Since his release he has received medical treatment and it looks like the cancer is in remission; he is planning to resume his physics studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Kokabee is considered a genius. Of the more than one million students annually who take the murderous entrance exams for Iranian universities, he ranked 29. He did a double undergraduate degree in applied physics and mechanical engineering, did his master’s degree in photonics at the University of Catalonia in Spain, and in 2010 he began his doctoral studies in Texas.

A year later, when he visited his family in Iran, he was arrested for “collaborating with the enemy,” “contact with an enemy country,” and “illegal profiteering.” His real “crime,” however, was that he refused to work for the Iranian nuclear program, writing on Twitter that he would prefer to suffer in prison than to cause suffering to humanity.

In 2014, he was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize, Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience and the American Association for the Advancement of Science awarded him its Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award. None of these awards made an impression on Iran, whose justice system answers directly to the Supreme Leader Ali Kahmenei.

Kokabee was finally freed, but some 900 political prisoners are still languishing in Iranian prisons, and the leaders of the Green Movement who contended in the 2009 presidential elections, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest.

These are the people to whom Iranian President Hassan Rohani owes an answer. Five months remain until the end of his term and the election campaign is being conducted at a snail’s pace. Will he win a second term (the Iranian constitution permits only two consecutive terms), or break a longstanding tradition of staying eight years in office?

Last week Rohani issued a document called “The Civil Rights Covenant,” which includes a list of rights to which all Iranians are entitled, including the right to life (as opposed to the death penalty), freedom of expression (without criticism of the regime landing you in jail), full equality between men and women, the right to medical services, to education and to a clean environment and water.

Rohani explained that the document is a means to realize all the commitments he made before the elections in 2013. His intentions might be good, but under the current political conditions in Iran and given his failure to deliver the goods until now, including the release of Mousavi and Karroubi, it’s doubtful that anyone takes this covenant seriously.

His conservative critics are preaching that he’d be better off dealing with economic issues – solving the unemployment problem, the low per capita income and primarily realizing the economic bounty that he promised would land on the country with the signing of the nuclear agreement. “European banks aren’t conducting transactions with banks in Iran, and there are no dollar transactions, either,” his critics say, and they’re right, since the American sanctions forbidding dollar transactions with Iran are still in force.

Meanwhile, the criticism by liberals and reformers focuses primarily on Rohani’s helplessness against the conservative forces. Executions of prisoners, especially those convicted of drug trafficking, continue unabated.

Reports by human rights organizations say that in 2015 more than 970 people were executed, including women and children, since the law permits the execution of girls from age nine and boys from age 13.

The reformers also criticize the stringent censorship, the morality police that has increased its monitoring over the wearing of the hijab, and the pervasive corruption that Rohani had once promised to fight.

Rohani’s civil rights covenant isn’t legally binding and isn’t meant to be expressed in the constitution, so that even on a formal level it isn’t any kind of milestone. Rohani has reminded the citizens of Iran that during his term more women have been elected to parliament, that he has four female deputies and that he appointed three women as district governors. But he doesn’t have a single female minister.

There is no consensus on a leading candidate in the conservative camp, however. According to reports from Iran, Khamenei has met with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and made it clear to him that he should not attempt a run. Khamenei fears that if Ahmadinejad runs it will split the conservative camp.

In at least one respect Khamenei can breathe easy: The new American president is playing right into the hands of the conservatives. With Donald Trump his life will be much easier.