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Reformist view of Iran's Rouhani: 'Yes he can' becomes 'No, he didn't'

Shifting political thought

Hossein Dehbashi once worked to get Hassan Rouhani elected president of Iran. Now, he says, he and other supporters of reforms feel taken for granted.

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    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves to the crowd at the conclusion of his speech during a rally to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, at the Azadi (Freedom) Square in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016.
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It was Hossein Dehbashi’s magic touch that added some of the inspirational glitter to Hassan Rouhani, when the cleric promised Iranians a new era of moderation and hope, and won the presidency by a landslide in 2013.

Not only did Mr. Dehbashi create the candidate’s two campaign videos, but he added a passion project of his own: An emotional Iranian version of President Obama’s “Yes We Can” video, which portrayed Mr. Rouhani as an inclusive, modern leader and brought tears to many Iranian eyes.

That video, “New Voyager,” marked Rouhani’s first 100 days in office and scored half a million hits in the first 48 hours it was posted online.

But as Iran prepares for parliamentary elections on Feb. 26, Rouhani’s shine has faded for Dehbashi and other disgruntled supporters who say he has failed to keep promises of loosened restrictions and an improved economy.

Even as Rouhani faces relentless pressure from hard-liners who accuse him of selling out Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution – by too much openness at home, and by his outreach to the West – he is also under attack by many in his own camp.

“Many of us are happy because of the Iran deal and negotiations,” says Dehbashi, a reform-leaning candidate for parliament. “But politically, inside, on freedom of speech, for example, or art, or relations between girls and boys, and the economy of course – many of us do not have the same hope as before.”

Powerful talk, no action

Back in 2013, Dehbashi said he was proud of a new president “who understands the power of art.” He told the Monitor then that the aim of the “New Voyager” video was to show Rouhani was “not a conservative person.”

But today Dehbashi says he feels used and “is not hopeful anymore” because of the president's failure to deliver on his promises. Rouhani “is the president of Iran, [and] all of us know he doesn’t have all of the power,” he says in an interview at his unmarked office above a mall in central Tehran.  

“But at least he has some of the power and he doesn’t want to use that. He just has a beautiful speech, a powerful speech, but in reality he’s not doing anything.”

To be sure, Rouhani presided over the nuclear deal agreed to last July that began lifting crippling sanctions in January. And at times he has sounded tough, too, even challenging the views of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Recently, after thousands of candidates for parliament were initially rejected, including 99 percent of reformist candidates, Rouhani issued a robust appeal: The 290-member assembly was “not the house of one faction,” and another faction of 10 million could not be ignored, he said. “Let’s not make people hopeless.”

One-term president?

Dehbashi was among those initially disqualified in a vetting process dominated by hard-liners. He has now been allowed to run along with 1,500 others reinstated this week. The political mix of that group is not yet clear.

Rouhani, speaking Thursday to large crowds to mark the 37th anniversary of the revolution, called for national unity and a large voter turnout. “If people have an issue with the political system and government … they must not take out their anger at the ballot box.”

And yet despite the broad residual support for Rouhani, hard-line pundits speculate he could become the Islamic Republic’s first one-term president when he stands for reelection next year.

“When Rouhani was chosen we were hopeful; we didn’t think change could not happen,” says Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, a reformist senior cleric in the religious city of Qom.

“Right now, I think it will not happen. There is no hope,” the octogenarian says, chewing on dried mulberries in his small, book-lined meeting room. “They [hard-liners] have all the posts and critical decision centers … and their hunger [for this power] will never end.”

As a candidate, Rouhani promised greater political and social freedoms, a prospect that led some young Iranians to dance in the streets. He vowed to resolve the nuclear deal, lift sanctions and improve the economy, and release from house arrest two former presidential candidates who encouraged street protests in 2009 and are reviled by hard-liners for “sedition.”

'Signs of giving up'

Yet by one count, Rouhani has achieved just 15 percent of his campaign promises, 38 percent were still being pursued, and 47 percent were “not fulfilled or pursueable,” according to a report last fall on the reform-leaning Iran Andish website.

“In an absolute way he’s popular, but things haven’t really changed,” says a veteran analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. For many Iranians, he says, the economic situation has become worse.

“People must look away from their problems to say, ‘Something will change,’ ” says the analyst. “Many of my friends aren’t voting. The signs of giving up and losing hope are there.”

The swing from joy to anger has been painful for Dehbashi, who asserts that Rouhani knows reformists and moderates have no other choice but to back him, so he no longer courts them. Dehbashi in fact created a second inspirational video, called “Green, White and Red,” which made reference to the so-called Green Movement protests in 2009. Rouhani did not approve of the video, and it has never been made public.

“Many of us understood that Rouhani used us just to [become] president,” says Dehbashi.

“Day by day he is becoming more conservative about culture,” he adds. “These days I feel he does not care about his relations with the people, but about [conservative] grand ayatollahs in Qom and the supreme leader.”

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