As Hassan Rouhani started the 7th year of his presidency in August, he has proven to be the most obedient and least trouble-making Iranian President for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have posed far more challenges to Khamenei's authority by insisting on their plans and demands.
Rouhani also started his presidential terms both in 2013 and 2017 with promises and plans to make life easier and more democratic for the nation but soon succumbed to the excessive demands and ambitions of Khamenei.
The 7th year of Rouhani's presidency started with mounting criticisms about his performance, while voters accused him of breaking his promises and ignoring whatever he had vowed to do, including the empowerment of women, ensuring civil liberties and in one specific case, insisting on putting an end to the house arrest of the leaders of the 2009 post-election unrests.
During the past several weeks, as Iran's reformists were preparing for the February 2020 parliamentary elections, an increasing number of reformist figures expressed their disappointment at Rouhani's performance, charging that reformists might end up paying for the society's negative attitudes toward the president, who came to power thanks to the support by reformists.
Even a silent reformist such as Mohammad Reza Aref who is preparing for candidacy in the 2021 presidential election regretted withdrawing from the campaign for the 2013 presidential race in favour of Rouhani.
In fact Rouhani has performed so poorly particularly in the economic area that reformists appear to be distancing themselves from him to avoid losses in the upcoming elections. The reformists' tactic is backed by estimates that show a large number of the 24 million Iranians who voted for Rouhani in 2017 regret having done so, although a few reformist figures such as Behzad Nabavi still believe Rouhani's performance is relatively acceptable.
Rouhani’s shift in favour of Khamenei can be viewed from various perspectives. However, the focal point in voters’ disappointment with Rouhani is their perception that his political behavior is tantamount to political deception. They also criticize the wide gap between his promises and his actual performance.
The reformists believe Rouhani and the small circle around him have used the post 2009 popular dissatisfaction in Iran to climb the power ladder by presenting themselves to Khamenei as those who can regain the public’s confidence and resolve the crisis.
In reality, however, they have pursued power rather than trying to give a minimal response to the people's demands. In fact, Rouhani's promise of democratization remained at the level of lip service. He forgot his criticism of IRGC's totalitarian approach in politics and economy and even became more conservative in his second term and in many cases reverted to his own political past in the 1980s and 1990s when he was part and parcel of Iran's hardline conservatives.
As a result, the gap between the institution of the Supreme Leader, which is an outdated arbitrary concept, and the presidential system as a modern institution became smaller and the Supreme Leader managed to marginalize the presidency and gain the upper hand in decision making in every area including foreign policy.
Of course, Khamenei has learned how to harness elected institutions after the reform movement of late 1990s, but his success in folding the threats resulting from the 2009 Green Movement and even the nuclear agreement with the West is something Rouhani has helped bring about.
With his maximum conformism and obedience, Rouhani has acted like a shock-absorber for Khamenei. Even his occasional calls for referendum appears to be superficial and is simply a means to differentiate him from other conservatives.
In the meantime, The Trump Administration in Washington, as Rouhani’s and Khamenei's common enemy, has brought them even closer. When there seems to be a slight difference between the two as how to deal with the United States, Rouhani quickly shifts his position to be compliant with Khamenei's stance.
Rouhani's populism and political deceit has its roots in Iranian politics. For many Iranians the word "politics" is a synonym for "deceit." Having this in mind, Rouhani could be characterized as a master of political deceit in the post-revolution Iran. More than anything else, he is preoccupied with the idea of ensuring an his own uneventful descent from the presidency, while protecting his status among Iran's political elite. The only behavior that can ensure the success of this agenda is succumbing to the desires of the Supreme Leader.