Watching and reading the coverage in western media of Hassan Rouhani’s re-election as Iran’s president gives the distinct impression that the forces of reform have triumphed. Mr Rouhani is portrayed as a moderate force who saw off the hardline politics of his main rival Ebrahim Raisi. The truth, viewed from this side of the Arabian Gulf, is substantially different.
There are no moderates in Iranian politics, there are only those who adhere more or less clearly to the foreign policy direction set by the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini. For most of this century, Iran has pursued a hardline approach to the Middle East and its neighbours. The roll call of actions that the country has taken – under the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as under the nominally moderate Mr Rouhani – is astonishing.
In Iraq, Iran backed some of the worst militias, who stoked sectarian hatred and carried out sectarian attacks. In Syria, even as the crimes of the Assad government were revealed, Iran sent military advisers and soldiers to prop up the regime. In Yemen, as the country tips towards mass starvation, Tehran has funnelled weapons to the Houthi rebels. Interference in Lebanon and in Bahrain are two more infractions on a long charge sheet.
These are not the actions of a moderate. Recall that all these acts took place or were considerably enhanced under the presidency of the so-called moderate Mr Rouhani. His policies have directly claimed tens of thousands of lives across the Middle East and have contributed to the chaotic conditions in too many countries in the region.
And therein lies the reality of Iran’s vision. Despite a storied history and the immense potential of Iran’s people, Iran under the supreme leader has no answers for the modern world. The country has no functioning economy and its politics is dysfunctional politics. It can only destabilise, it cannot create. If Mr Rouhani wants to change, he will find many supporters in the region. But the past four years show he has already set his course.