By Andrew Lumsden, AIC Research Fellow
MYTH: Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is not a true political moderate and his promises of reform were disingenuous as evidenced by the results (or lack thereof) of his administration.
FACT: While it is true that Iran has not substantively transformed since Rouhani took office five years ago, some of the actions he has taken, alone and in conjunction with Parliament, suggest that Rouhani’s reputation as a moderate is not completely unfounded and that pro-reform voices may have a stronger presence in Iranian politics than commonly thought.
For many Western observers, Hassan Rouhani, who ran and won the Iranian presidency in 2013 and 2017 on a platform of openness, respect for human rights and equality for women and minorities, is the face of Iranian politics. Accordingly, he bears the brunt of public criticism for the Islamic Republic’s human rights record which remains dismal. Tom Ridge, former head of the U.S Department of Homeland Security, for example, wrote in 2017 that Rouhani “is not and has never been an agent of change.” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League called Rouhani’s portrayal as a moderate or reformer, “unhelpful” as it “clouds the reality” that under him, Iran remains “a brutal theocracy that oppresses its own people.”
Analyses like these bely an important truth. The Iranian president’s powers are significantly more limited than those of presidents in most republics. He has little to no control over the military, the judiciary or domestic security services, who answer only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and are responsible for most of the human rights abuses in Iran. While Rouhani’s pro-reform rhetoric has been met with skepticism among some analysts, his administration has, especially since moderates and reformists took control of Parliament in 2016, initiated progressive change in at least some of the political sectors over which they have influence. Tellingly, these efforts have often been met with fierce opposition from hardline conservatives, including the Supreme Leader and members of the Guardian Council, a body that can veto any law it deems unconstitutional or un-Islamic.
What follows is a brief summary of the areas in which the Rouhani administration has attempted to institute reform and a discussion on whether those efforts have been successful or not.
Equal Treatment of Religious Minorities
While on the campaign trail in 2013, Rouhani expressed concern over the treatment of religious minorities in Iran, declaring that “justice means equal opportunity,” and “[Iran’s] religious minorities must feel justice.”
In Iran, non-Muslims face varied challenges. While Iran’s constitution officially recognizes Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism as minority faiths whose adherents are entitled to equal rights, practitioners of minority faiths often face widespread, systemic discrimination.
One recent and widely publicized example occurred during the run-up to the April 2017 local elections in Iran when Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-conservative chairman of the Guardian Council, declared that non-Muslim candidates should not to be allowed to run for city or village council seats in Muslim-majority districts.
The declaration was condemned by the Speaker of Parliament who noted that while the Guardian Council does have power to disqualify candidates for national office, it should have no influence over local elections. Nevertheless, Jannati’s proclamation had a dramatic impact on elections in the city of Yazd where councilman Sepanta Niknam, a Zoroastrian, won his re-election campaign against a Muslim candidate who then sued based on Jannati’s declaration
The local court sided with the defeated candidate, ordering Niknam’s “temporary suspension” from the council. Both the Rouhani administration and Parliament quickly intervened. President Rouhani reportedly wrote letters to the Supreme Leader, calling Niknam’s suspension “contrary to law” and asking him to intervene on Niknam’s behalf. Rouhani’s efforts were praised by the U.S.-based Center for Human Rights in Iran which noted that his administration “consistently” spoke out against restrictions on minority candidacy. For its part, Parliament passed an amendment to Iran’s election law making clear that non-Muslims do have the right to run for local office in any district on December 13, 2017 by a margin of 156-14.
Unfortunately, these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. The Guardian Council struck down Parliament’s amendment five days after its passing, and the Supreme Leader has not intervened. The case has since January 2018, been referred to Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, a body responsible for resolving disputes between Parliament and the Guardian Council. The Expediency Council however, has yet to issue a ruling.
It is important to note that while the Rouhani administration was active in this particular case, it has done little else to defend or promote the rights of Iran’s religious minorities. No Sunni Muslims, Jews, Christians or Zoroastrians have been appointed to cabinet positions or high-level government jobs in the Rouhani administration. The discriminatory gozinesh policy, under which Shi’a Muslims are given priority in hiring for many government and some private sector jobs, remains in place. Moreover, Iran’s Baha’i community has reported that their rights have been “violated more than ever” under Rouhani. The Baha’i faith is the largest minority faith in Iran, but it is legally unrecognized and considered subversive and heretical by the government. Its adherents are prohibited from attending university and often face denial of pensions and inheritances, unjustified arrests, confiscation or destruction of property and crimes against them by civilians generally go unpunished. Since Rouhani took office, arrests and arbitrary shuttering of Baha’i owned businesses have reportedly increased.
One area in which Rouhani has been successful in instituting considerable change is internet freedom and accessibility. In his 2013 campaign, Rouhani railed against government restrictions on the internet in Iran and pledged to make it faster and more accessible. He has achieved some measure of success. According to Freedom House, when Rouhani took office only about 15% of Iranians had access to the internet, as of 2017, at least 44% have access. Internet speed has also quadrupled since Rouhani has been in office. His administration lifted restrictions imposed by the previous administration which had deliberately kept internet speed low as a means of limiting dissident activists’ ability to utilize the internet in their work. Furthermore, under Rouhani, at least 27,000 rural villages have received internet access for the first time.
Another notable success for the Rouhani administration has been its defense of social media in Iran. Although most major social networks are officially banned (see our Myth vs. Fact on Censorship in Iran for more information), the Rouhani administration blocked a push by conservatives in 2017 to permanently ban the social network Instagram and the messaging apps Tango, Telegram, Line and WhatsApp. Freedom House also credits Rouhani’s reformist rhetoric and use of social media with encouraging pro-reform online bloggers and journalists to express themselves freely, whereas many had self-censored or kept quiet under the previous government. Despite improvements, many online activists still face severe repression from authorities.
Internet freedom in Iran suffered a serious blow on April 30, 2018 when Iran’s judiciary ruled that Telegram, used by about 45 million Iranians, was to be immediately banned. Judiciary officials claimed that the app helps to incite “terrorist activities,” and spread “pornography,” although hardliners have been in conflict with Telegram since at least 2017 over the company’s refusal to conform to censorship and surveillance demands.
President Rouhani has denounced the ban as “opposite to democracy,” and suggested in an Instagram post that it was orchestrated by the Supreme Leader, writing on May 4, 2018 that “a decision has been made by the highest level of the state to restrict or block people’s communications.” Given that the recent ban was ordered by the judiciary, the Rouhani administration does have the power to block it outright as it did in 2017 when a potential ban was being pushed through the Supreme National Security Council over which the President has some influence. Some attorneys in Iran have been arguing that the administration can challenge the Telegram ban in court, and several reformist newspapers have urged President Rouhani to do so. However, to date the administration has not mounted a legal challenge or indicated that any such plans exist.
Rights of the Disabled
The rights of those living with disabilities is an area of human rights that does not often receive international attention. However, it is another area in which the Rouhani administration has worked to implement real reform, even while it has been stymied by the Guardian Council and other hardliners. Life for Iran’s approximately 11 million disabled citizens is difficult–as it is for disabled individuals elsewhere in the world. Few public buildings or means of public transportation in Iran are fully accessible, even in Tehran. Unemployment among the disabled is thrice the national average, and only about 9% of disabled Iranians qualify for financial aid, which rarely exceeds a meager US$15.50 a month.
In 2016, President Rouhani announced that his administration would be pursuing a legislative agenda to “give equal opportunities to the disabled so that they have a fairer life.” The administration submitted a bill to Parliament which, among other things, would extend health insurance coverage to a wider range of medical and rehabilitation services, provide incentives for employers to hire disabled people, require that public transportation vehicles and terminals be made accessible and establish a committee made up of people with disabilities to monitor the enforcement of laws protecting the disabled. The “Bill on the Protection of the Rights of the Disabled” had support from activists both inside and outside of Iran. Iranian activists launched a social media campaign including an online petition calling for its immediate passage. The Center for Human Rights in Iran also gave their endorsement, calling the bill “vital legislation.”
Parliament passed the bill on December 28, 2017 by a margin of 195-2, but it was struck down three weeks later by the Guardian Council, which argued that the bill’s definitions of ‘disabled people’ was too vague and several of its provisions, including the establishment of an independent monitoring committee, were unconstitutional. A revised version is reportedly currently in the final stages of deliberation in Parliament.
Since his first presidential campaign, Rouhani has been outspoken in his opposition to gender-based discrimination and support from female voters was instrumental in both of his electoral victories. In a 2014 televised address, he declared that in Iran “women must enjoy equal opportunity, equal protection and equal social rights," and that discrimination against women has no basis in Islamic law. Although Iranian women still face a myriad of severe legal and customary forms of discrimination, the Rouhani administration has succeeded in making some small but meaningful inroads in protecting and expanding women’s rights and freedoms.
The Rouhani administration has moved to address the issue of domestic violence against women in Iran. The United Nations Secretary-General reported in 2016 that 60% of women in Iran have experienced domestic violence. Other international organizations however argue that this statistic may not reflect the true number since many cases go unreported and because officials often view domestic violence as a personal matter and refuse to intervene. In January 2017, the Rouhani administration proposed a bill which would mandate prison time for acts of domestic violence. Iran’s judiciary protested, arguing that this would criminalize the “slightest tension between couples.” The Rouhani administration announced in May 2017 that it was working on a revised bill which would instead require that domestic abusers be removed from the home. Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar said in February 2018 that the new bill would soon be ready for formal presentation to Parliament.
In 2012, in a move spearheaded by the administration of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supported by the Supreme Leader, 36 Iranian universities barred women from 77 fields of study, particularly those related to science, engineering and business. Some schools including the Oil Industry University announced that women could no longer study there at all. Since taking office, the Rouhani administration has reversed some of these policies and replaced the heads of at least 49 state-affiliated universities which had instituted gender-based restrictions on fields of study. However, Human Rights Watch reports that as of 2017, several universities still exclude women from certain fields of study.
Iranian women face particularly severe discrimination when it comes to employment. Although they make up about 50% of the national population and 51% of university graduates, women make up only about 17% of the Iran’s workforce and rates of unemployment rate among them is about double that of men. Employers can–and often do–include specific preferences for male or married female applicants in job listings, require female applicants to have their husband’s written permission or exclude female employees from opportunities for bonuses, promotions and overtime. Husbands may also prevent their wives from taking or keeping any job they deem improper.
The Rouhani administration has been making some small steps to improve women’s standing and representation in the workforce. Though female participation in Iran’s workforce remains low, it is about 5% higher than it was when Rouhani took office and,–but for a less than 1% decline in 2017–has been consistently on the rise. In 2016, Rouhani suspended Iran’s civil service exams and ordered a review of the positions being offered over concerns that the government employment process was biased against women. Also that year, Parliament passed a law allowing women who have children under six, children with disabilities or sick family members in need of care to work only 36 of the traditional 44 hours per week without any salary reduction. Parliament however, rejected a push by the Rouhani administration to extend the same privilege to men. The law was approved by the Guardian Council, but reaction to it is mixed. There are fears that it will make employers less willing to hire women for fear of potentially having to pay them equal wages for fewer hours of work.
Women have made some inroads in Iranian politics since Rouhani took office. While he has not appointed any female ministers–an issue that garnered significant media attention and condemnation–three women have been appointed as vice-presidents and the administration has been appointing women to leadership positions at the county and district levels across the country. In 2015, Rouhani publicly encouraged more women to run for office saying, “women should be present in the elections…because their presence in the mix is important for us,” and that it the “natural right” of women to participate in government.
Although the Guardian Council, which can disqualify candidates for public office, blocked most female candidates from running, 14 women were elected to Parliament in 2016, bringing the total number of women in the 290-seat legislature to 17, the highest it has been since the 1979 revolution. While Rouhani has drawn criticism for the relative lack of women in his administration, analysts suggest that this may not be because Rouhani himself objects to reform, but because of pressures from the Supreme Leader who is an outspoken opponent of gender equality and has even said that “[gender-based] discrimination isn’t bad in all cases.”
Women in Iran have since the 1979 revolution, been required by law to wear a hijab [headscarf] while in public. Since taking office, President Rouhani has been outspoken in his criticism of this policy and the manners in which it is enforced. In 2014, he told an assembly of police officers that “the police’s job is not to enforce Islam.” The following year he argued that that issues such as dress should be a matter of one’s “individual faith” and not something to be dictated by state policy; and in 2016 he criticized police in Tehran for using undercover agents to surveil and detain women not wearing hijabs or wearing “unacceptable” colors or clothing styles.
Although police in Iran are primarily under the purview of the Supreme Leader, the Rouhani administration does have some influence. In 2017, police in Tehran announced that women would no longer be arrested for first-time dress code violations. This however has not applied to women who have since late 2017 been peacefully protesting the dress code laws by removing their hijabs in public. Several protestors have suffered beatings and arrest by authorities.
Rouhani has also been critical of Iran’s ban on women attending stadium soccer and volleyball matches. The ban, in place since 1981, is now the only one of its kind in the world since Saudi Arabia lifted its ban in January 2018. Violators face detention by police. Rouhani has not succeeded in getting the policy reversed due to opposition from conservatives, however, the head of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) reported in February 2018 that he has been assured by Rouhani that “women in Iran will have access to football stadiums soon.”
Five years into the Rouhani presidency, repression of dissent and gross violations of human rights continue in Iran. Despite this, President Rouhani’s domestic policy actions and the intense opposition he has garnered from the conservative establishment suggest that he is no hardliner and is in some ways trying to be an agent of progressive change in Iran. While it is also true that Rouhani is not likely to be able to bring about radical reform in Iran as president, he has demonstrated success in some areas, such as expanding internet access, emboldening reformist voices and formulating practical, progressive legislation, which may be laying the groundwork for successful reform movements in the future. The alternative is also relevant; as one reformist cleric told The New York Times in 2017, “at least the hardliners didn’t win the elections…in that case, we’d be much worse off.”