Iran’s challenges are not few, from job creation and stopping inflation to improving foreign relations. Most presidential candidates in 2013 ran on such platforms. However, there was a key issue that was not directly addressed in their political vernacular: human rights.
While many jubilant Iranians and a hopeful international community are touting president-elect Hassan Rouhani as a reformist because of his promise to ease restrictions at home, free political prisoners, and to offer more transparency for Iran’s controversial nuclear program, it should not be ignored that he remains, nevertheless, among those select few candidates approved to run by Iran’s Guardian Council.
Rouhani has had close ties with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for over 40 years, having served on his security council multiple times. He has proven his unwavering loyalty to the principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, its constitution and the many repressive laws that followed. Laws that have cracked down on free speech and religion, silencing and punishing peaceful activists, minorities, journalists, lawyers and artists alike.
Himself a revolutionary who was arrested shortly after he fought against the Shah in 1962, Rouhani should have more empathy with those seeking social or political change. However, in stark contrast to his flowery campaign rhetoric, he ardently called for the execution of pro-democracy student protesters in 1999.
Even if Rouhani has had a change of heart since then, is real reform possible under the unequivocal authority of the Supreme Leader? Though he urges his supporters to be patient, it would be naive to cease all skepticism. After all, the Iranian people have been promised reform in the past. Khatami’s proposal to change Iran’s civil and penal codes to improve human rights was dismissed by the Gaurdian Council during his presidency.
If Rouhani is truly more than a symbolic figurehead in Iran’s Governance of the Jurist system, he should start his presidency by immediately freeing the hundreds of prisoners of conscience in his country, including Majid Tavakoli, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and the seven Baha’i leaders. He should also dismantle any and all unjust laws and ban practices that have lead to the wrongful imprisonment of so many Iranians.
The Iranian authorities should have learned their lesson from the courageous protesters who exercised their right to the freedom of expression in the aftermath of the disputed presidential elections of 2009 – no amount of physical brutality or psychological intimidation will keep the people from demanding their rights. If the government seems to have thwarted such protests in 2013 it is only because people have invested their last pieces of hope in Rouhani.
Today, more than half of Iran’s population is under 35 years old and the literacy rate is over 80%. There is a fervent appetite for human rights and freedom among Iranian youth, whose patience is wearing thin. If the Iranian authorities do not deliver on the campaign promises made by Rouhani and continue to ignore the dire human rights issues at hand, they will be dismissing the clearly expressed will of the Iranian people who will not want to wait until 2017 to once again demand that their dreams of a better future be realized.