Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has now been in office for more than four years. Yet he hasn’t fulfilled any of the major domestic-reform pledges that got him elected in 2013 and re-elected earlier this year. Those pledges won him the decisive backing of urban, secular-minded, middle class Iranians–and plaudits in the West. Yet Iranians are no more free than they were four years ago, and the Islamic Republic is still the same security state that it was then.

Rouhani’s ballot-box triumph, then, was enough to give the regime a smiling, reasonable visage, and to reduce rising discontent, but not enough to effect any meaningful change.

The president’s apologists have a new theory to explain this mismatch between rhetoric and reality. Under pressure from some of his own allies, they claim, Rouhani has been trying to distance himself from the reformists inside the regime while seeking to appease its hard-line, or “principlist,” faction. Rouhani’s alleged “shift to the right,” according to this view, comes despite the president’s own reformist inclinations. But it is aimed at creating a new, moderate if also conservative, center in Iranian politics.

The Iranian journalist Saeid Jafari on Monday presented one version of this idea over at Al-Monitor, an online outlet that struggles to disguise its pro-Tehran sympathies. The reformists are unhappy, Jafari reported, over Rouhani’s “unfulfilled campaign promises, such as his pledge to give women a more prominent role in Iran’s political scene” and to “remove the security atmosphere that prevails over Iranian universities and create a more open environment.” Jafari quoted a former minister in the Khatami government (1997-2005): “Rouhani is smarter than to shift to the right, because he knows that if he does so, he will not gain anything. Instead he will lose the huge popular support behind him, and Rouhani should be careful of this.” But other voices, led by Rouhani chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi, have allegedly prevailed in the internal debate and persuaded the president to shun reform.

Nice try. The Rouhani-as-reluctant-hard-liner theory is belied by the man’s long record in the Islamic Republic. Try as they might, Rouhani’s apologists can’t elide the fact that he served as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council from 1989 to 2005, years during which Iran conducted a campaign of assassinations and “chain murders” targeting dissidents at home and abroad. Nor can revisionism undo Rouhani’s leading role in the crackdown against the 1999 student uprising, when he called on the regime’s security forces to“crush mercilessly and monumentally any move of these opportunist elements wherever it may occur.” Nor, finally, can the apologists ignore Rouhani’s years-long refusal to speak out for the detained leaders of the Green Movement.

As Payam Fazlinejad, a leading ideologist with the regime’s hard-line faction and a researcher with the Kayhan newspaper (whose editor is the supreme leader’s representative to the Iranian media), told me: “Mr. Rouhani is a conservative personality and, indeed, is one of the founders of conservatism in Iran. Therefore he is much closer to the right-wing and principlist currents in Iran” than he is to the reformers. Fazlinejad added: “Rouhani is part of the very reason that principlism enjoys such a hegemony in Iran.”

What does all this mean for the West? It means that the U.S. and its allies must finally come to terms with the Islamic Republic as it really is, rather than as they would wish it to be. Nearly four decades since its founding, the regime is much more ideologically cohesive and united than the appearance of factional wrangling among its elites would suggest. There are no liberal-minded, pro-Western friends on the inside. Too bad that in Washington and more so in Brussels, reformist hope springs eternal.

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