The video shows the ceremony commemorating Student Day, the anniversary of the killings of three students of University of Tehran by the Shah’s police. It’s an official day, recognized by the regime, but it has been long appropriated by pro-democracy students to demand academic freedoms. To honor the day, Hassan Rouhani, the 7th president of Iran, is present at the ceremony. Students take the podium one by one, and attack the president with merciless criticism. Some conservative students chastise him for being too lenient toward the West, some reformist students chastise him for not being reformist enough, some making social or economic criticism. A minority of voices defend him. The president sits there, listening silently and intently. It’s now his turn to speak. As he walks toward the podium, students chant “long live Rouhani, long live Mousavi”.
This is the opening of Hassan Rouhani’s official campaign ad. It’s unusual for an Iranian politician to devote a portion of his campaign ad to his critics shouting at him, and to begin it by highlighting one of his most glaring failures, the failure to end the house arrest of the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
But the president is sending a message, a message that hits home for the intended target audience of the ad. He shows us that he is the one who sits silently and listens to the barrages of criticism and taking them. This silence, in itself, is subversive, a deceleration of his commitment to the freedom of speech, and also an attack against his opponent.
The day after, in a campaign speech, he makes explicit the silent implication. “They speak about the freedom of speech and criticism. What a great wonder! Those who cut the tongues and sewed the mouths! The only thing in the past years seen by you was the word ‘forbidden’. Forbidding the quilt, forbidding the picture. Please, do not speak about freedom, you make freedom itself ashamed!”
But Rouhani did not need to make the purpose of his opening clear. The official TV channel of the regime censored the footage. It cut away the mentions of the Supreme Leader, of the judiciary, the former reformist president Khatami, and the house arrest of Green Movement leaders. The uncensored version was distributed among people on social media.
This was, basically, the drawing of the battle lines. The battle lines were implicit. He made that explicit too.
“Our path is the path of freedom.” Rouhani shouts in his campaign speech. “Our path is the path of freedom!”
The Miracle that Thankfully Wasn’t
This is how Christopher de Bellaigue passes judgment in his article on Hassan Rouhani:
But the economic miracle that was promised by the Rouhani government hasn’t happened, and the sense of anti-climax is palpable—a disillusionment that has broadened into a general contempt for politics, politicians, and promises that aren’t kept. Whether in Tehran or far-flung areas such as Khuzestan—an oil-rich province in the south that nonetheless suffers from chronic electricity and water outages, and whose inhabitants complain of neglect by the central government—there is widespread skepticism of the state’s determination to improve the lot of the ordinary Iranian.
And his article was called “Iran: The Miracle That Wasn’t”.
I quote him because his complaint is a common one among many Iranians, and if Rouhani is brought down, it’s most probably because of this sense of pervasive disillusionment.
But he’s also wrong. He’s wrong because Rouhani never promised any miracle. In comparison with his campaign promises in 2013, he has over-performed, not failed to deliver any miracles. And one reason that we voted for him was this very lack of miracle promises.
We are tired of miracle workers. We had one in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who promised miracle after miracle and delivered disaster after disaster. And now miracle workers are running against him again. Ghalibaf, the Tehran mayor, promises to create five million jobs and give a monthly salary to the unemployed people. Raisi, the mass murderer, promises free housing, universal income, and wiping out unemployment.
These promises are “miracles” in the sense that they defy the laws of nature, and for a country in as poor a state as Iran they are simply impossible. Rouhani promises no miracles, he has plans, he has economists and a scientific approach, he is earthly.
We don’t need a miracle worker. We need a competent politician with a plan. Hassan Rouhani is the president we need.
Why Hassan Rouhani Is the Best President of Our History
The truth is, Hassan Rouhani has been our most successful president. You wouldn’t come to this conclusion if you looked at the problem that we have, if you look at the ideal or even the satisfactory position and judged him based on how far we are from that ideal position. That’s how people like de Bellaigue judge Rouhani.
You don’t judge a president based on how far we are from an ideal position. You judge them based on how much real advances they have brought in their term. Rouhani has gone the longest distance.
He took a country when it was in a state of raging stagflation, we were in our worst relationship with the west, on the brink of the war, on the brink of famine and becoming a failed state, the least free it has ever been throughout all its history of different tyrannies, a currency that was rapidly losing all value, with a severe shortage of goods and drugs.
If Hassan Rouhani was not our president, we would have become, at best, a country like Venezuela right now, embroiled in riots and a destroyed economy, or at worst somewhere like Somalia or Syria.
These are some of the achievements of Hassan Rouhani:
- He reduced inflation to single digits, effectively ending the stagflation.
- He returned growth to our country, raising it from negative growth to steady growth.
- He stabilized the currency market.
- He reached the nuclear deal with the west, removing the worst sanctions and the threat of war.
- He made an imperfect system of universal healthcare, nevertheless making cancer and similar illnesses almost free.
- He made internet very fast and very accessible, refused to filter many sites, basically destroying the media monopoly of the official regime.
- He fought the military wings of the regime tooth and nail, reducing their economic influence and political reach.
- He returned expelled students and professors to universities, reinstating a great portion of academic freedom.
- Reduced censorship by a great degree. Iran’s cinema was revived, destroyed banned writers lists, and the press slowly edged toward criticism again. Now Iran is still very bad at this, but still not comparable with four years ago.
- Fought hard for women’s equality.
- For the first time ethnic languages other than Persian were being taught at universities in areas were ethnic minorities live.
- He revived the Urmia Lake and prevented famine, which was imminent.
Iran is still not as free or prosperous as it was in 2005, when Ahmadinejad took office. And certainly in 2005 Iran was not nearly free or prosperous enough. But that is not an indictment of Rouhani: he took a country entirely taken over by the worst forces in the regime, and on the brink of destruction.
Even the dissatisfaction of those who are disappointed is a testament to his great presidency. In 2013, no one expected Iran to truly become a healthy economy again. This demand for prosperity and freedom is actually a sign that normalcy has returned. And normalcy is a great achievement.
We need Rouhani to go the rest of the way. Hassan Rouhani is the president we need.
A Better Future
Back in 2013, someone asked me what did I expect from Rouhani. I said if our country is still stable, I’m satisfied. Based on my own metric I should be very satisfied, because he has done much more than that.
In 2013, I was voting for him out of desperation. He was, I thought, simply a moderate conservative, meant to prevent the worst only. Now, I am voting for him enthusiastically. Now I know that he is a dedicated reformist, and he is our chance for a real shot at a better future.
I’m so enthusiastic about Rouhani because I am someone who values humans, and just make a real calculation: between war, famine, economic failure, sanctions, and cancer, how many lives would have been lost if he was not our president? Surely, the cost of Rouhani’s non-presidency would have been millions of lives.
And that is why anyone not enthusiastic about Rouhani are betraying something ugly about themselves: human lives are more important the fact that we are still far from ideal. Demanding miracles is ugly, we need someone who acts rationally and competently.
I’m immensely thankful for Rouhani.
But in his campaign ad, the one censored by the regime, he gave me even more reason to be enthusiastic for him.
And at the heart of his film was the issue of social justice. Not at the periphery. Not mentioned as among the list of policies. It was the very soul of it. It was about women’s rights. It was about minority rights. Racial and religious minorities.
Rouhani has now defined himself as the candidate for equality. And he has broken a great taboo of the Iranian politics by doing so. He has brought the issue of equality among ethnicities to the forefront of the Iranian politics for the first time. No matter the effect of this on the election, he has done a great thing. He has finally broken the seal of the ultimate topic.
Rouhani has redefined himself. Let’s hope he will redefine the reformist movement. It is time for us to become as egalitarian as we are democratic.
Rouhani is signalling what he is going to fight for in his second term. If the story of his first term was the survival of our country and a return to some semblance of normalcy, his second term will be the story of how he will face the repressive aspects of the regime head on and finally address the root causes of our nation’s problems: military influence, discrimination, systemic corruption, freedom of speech. These are the keywords of his candidacy. These are the issues he has campaigned on.
We, as a nation, have faced wars and revolutions and famines. But we have never lost hope. “Hope is the seed of our identity”, Mir-Hossein Mousavi once said.
Rouhani offers no miracle, but he offers hope. Hassan Rouhani is the candidate we deserve.