When Hassan Rouhani won re-election to Iran's presidency in May, ordinary people spilled into the streets to celebrate. On Thursday, people poured into the streets of Mashhad, the country's second largest city, to commiserate and protest. By the following day, multiple cities in Iran were rocked by protests, which continue despite detentions and use of disproportionate force by the regime. Mr Rouhani had pledged to improve the lot of his people when he ran for the presidency of Iran. But his priorities changed as soon as he entered office and the promises to bring prosperity to ordinary people became a casualty of the grand fantasy that Iran's tiny ruling elite has harboured for nearly four decades: imperial domination of the region.
The placid image of the "moderate" that Mr Rouhani cultivated abroad is impossible to reconcile with the reality of his rule. Lest we forget, it is under Mr Rouhani's presidency that Iran doubled down on its support for the Assad regime in Syria; destabilised Yemen by helping Houthi militias, whom it continues to arm and finance, overthrow the country's government; intensified its backing for militias in Iraq; and encouraged its Hizbollah clients in Lebanon to plunge that fragile country into a fresh phase of political instability.
As their government went about abetting tyrannies and financing terror abroad, Iranians at home were feeling the pinch. Youth unemployment in the country under Mr Rouhani is at 40 per cent. Food prices have risen, the cost of eggs alone going up by more than 40 per cent. Soaring inflation and depreciating currency have dealt a powerful blow to people's confidence. Iran's venal ruling class has not only immunised itself from the hardship endured by most people – it has also grown richer. The international trading opportunities created by the nuclear deal that Tehran signed with global powers have so far benefited only a small class of Iranians. Foreign investment into Iran may be rising, but its beneficiaries, once again, are not everyday Iranians.
It is hardly surprising that the patience of Iranians, who have witnessed their government propping up unsavoury regimes abroad while repressing people at home, has finally snapped. As the US state department observed over the weekend, Iran's rulers have transformed a wealthy country into "an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos". Yet these protests, as Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, tweeted, also present an opportunity for the Iranian government to conduct a "rational review, to put their internal interests ahead of Tehran's quests in the Arab region". Given Iran's history, however, this may not be likely. Mr Rouhani, who cast himself as the great moderate hope of Iran, has revealed himself to be no different from the radicals.
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