When Hassan Rouhani won the race this summer for a second term as the Islamic Republic’s president, no small number of Western observers saw his victory as a triumph for the country’s “moderates,” whom Rouhani supposedly leads, and for the nuclear deal, which was ostensibly intended to encourage “moderation” within the regime. But Rouhani, since taking office, has fulfilled none of the promises he made to more liberal Iranians, and if anything the “hardliners” in the government have grown stronger. Elliott Abrams takes as an example Rouhani’s unfulfilled promise—from his first presidential campaign, in 2013—to free Mehdi Karroubi, a seventy-nine-year-old dissident, from house arrest:
It does not really matter whether in his heart Rouhani wishes he could free Karroubi. What does matter is that once again Westerners hoping for change in Iran have deceived themselves; allowed themselves to believe that Iran’s closed, corrupt, and repressive theocracy was about to change; concluded that Rouhani was some sort of “moderate” despite the fact that human-rights conditions in Iran worsened during his first term in office; and continued to treat Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and others whom the regime uses to calm Westerners as if they were actors in an effort to liberalize Iran.
They are not. They are important parts of the repressive and brutal regime that rules the Islamic Republic. The real actors in the struggle to change Iran and free its people from tyranny are the people of Iran, not officials of the regime. As Misagh Parsa recounts in his fascinating book Democracy in Iran, the regime has been at war with the people since 1979—year in and year out, month after month. Iranians have no illusions about those who rule them. Neither should we. When a regime cannot release someone like Mehdi Karroubi from house arrest after six years, . . . we are reminded of the nature of the regime—and of its own understanding that Iranians will be rid at once of it if ever they have the chance.