Upon being elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2013, Hassan Rouhani was heralded by Western leaders and the media as a harbinger of a new era. White House press secretary Jay Carney said that his election “represented a call by the Iranian people for change.” The Washington Post called Rouhani a “moderate cleric” whose ascension delivered “an unmistakable rebuke” to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The New York Times described Rouhani as “mild-mannered” and took his advocacy of “greater personal freedoms” at face value.
Others saw Rouhani’s less ostentatiously hostile presentation for what it was: a smokescreen. Though he was far less bombastic and prone to saber-rattling than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his track record should have made it obvious that Rouhani was not going to turn Iran into a less troublesome actor in the region or a bastion of human rights. He was the same man who had chaired the Supreme National Security Council — the body responsible for setting Iranian nuclear policy and believed to be responsible for the planning of terrorist attacks from Buenos Aires to Saudi Arabia — from 1989 until 2005. To Rouhani, “Israel is the great Zionist Satan” that “can never feel that it is in a safe place,” and “the beautiful cry of ‘Death to America’ unites” his country. In a 2004 speech, Rouhani boasted that nuclear negotiations he was holding with Britain, France, and Germany bought time that allowed engineers to install “equipment in parts of the [nuclear conversion] facility in Isfahan.” “By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there,” he explained.
Seeing through the Rouhani administration’s “charm offensive” in November 2013, Senator Marco Rubio wrote to advocate harsher sanctions, noting that, his “moderate” label aside, Rouhani was the president of “a government that is a notorious abuser of its people and the leading global sponsor of terrorism.” Rubio has been vindicated not only by Iran’s flagrant violations of the nuclear deal it agreed to in 2015 but also by its continued support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the destabilizing activity of the Quds Force — the terrorist arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, previously led by General Qasem Soleimani — throughout the region.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Rouhani has failed to live up to his reputation as a reformer at home as well as abroad. During his original campaign in 2013, Rouhani ran on a platform of freeing political prisoners and curbing the power of the morality police. A horrifying new Amnesty International report on the Iranian government’s response to widespread protests in November 2019 shows that this was empty campaign rhetoric.
The report, appropriately titled “Trampling Humanity,” was put together after Amnesty conducted interviews with 76 individuals, 60 of whom were subjected to “arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill treatment.” During and in the aftermath of the protests, thousands of Iranians were arrested by security forces — in the vast majority of cases, for merely showing up to the protests. In Bebahan, a small city of fewer than 125,000 people, over 1,000 were arrested. Children as young as ten years old were taken into custody. Moreover, the “heightened security atmosphere” was used as a “pretext . . . to arbitrarily arrest and detain members of ethnic minority groups” such as “Ahwazi Arabs, Azerbaijani Turks, and Kurds, even when they had not taken part in the protests.” Iranian authorities have not released exact figures on how many were arrested, nor the fate of those who were. Instead, officials have tendentiously claimed that “some have been referred to courts” while “a considerable number have been released.” Punishments doled out to those tried for their roles in the protests included being forced to wash corpses in morgues, “researching the topic of the Islamic hijab and writing by hand a 90-page paper on it,” and being forcibly conscripted into the paramilitary Basij force.
Many of those arrested disappeared for weeks and even months. Family members who inquired as to their status were often “subjected to harassment [and] intimidation.” Some who vanished were taken to jail, others to unofficial secret detention facilities, where even the minimal protections afforded to prisoners in regular facilities are ignored and various forms of torture could be carried out more easily.
Torture was used not only to force the “confessions” of individuals’ unlawful behavior, “but also about their alleged associations with opposition groups outside Iran.” Among the methods used by authorities to elicit such confessions were beatings, prolonged stays in solitary confinement, stress positions and suspension, electric shocks, mock executions, and sexual violence and humiliation, including “forced nakedness, invasive body searches intended to humiliate the victims, sustained sexual verbal abuse, pepper spraying the genital area, and administering electric shocks to the testicles.” Allegations have also been made that interrogators raped some detainees, but it is very difficult to get interviewees to talk about such experiences because of the “psychological, social, legal, and institutional barriers to reporting rape and serious concerns around reprisal.”
Trials held were rife with injustices, as defendants were frequently denied legal counsel, a fair and public hearing, an independent and impartial tribunal, or the right to a meaningful appeal. They were also tried before both criminal courts and Revolutionary Courts, the latter of which charged them with vague infractions such as “spreading propaganda against the system” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.”
The story of Amirhossein Moradi paints a full, ugly picture of the Iranian regime’s response to protests under Rouhani. Moradi was arrested in November and was held in solitary confinement with only intermittent interrogation and torture interrupting it. He eventually “confessed” to being involved in the protests “after his interrogators promised to provide him with medical treatment for the injuries he sustained under torture, which they later denied him.” Since then, Moradi and two other young men have been sentenced to death for arson, and their fate has been rubber-stamped by Iran’s Supreme Court. Only one more review process is left, and a decision is forthcoming.
Jay Carney was right that Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013 reflected the will of the Iranian people for détente with the West and an expansion of their own rights and freedoms. But the Obama administration, the Post, and the Times were wrong to believe that Rouhani was well suited to achieve those aims. Supreme Leader Khamenei effectively decides who is even able to run for office by way of a Guardian Council run by hardline clerics. If Rouhani were truly an “unmistakable rebuke” to Khamenei, he would never have become president. If Rouhani was determined to act in the best interest of his people, reading Amnesty International’s report would not have been so heartbreaking.