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Rouhani defends annual performance from floods to coronavirus

The Iranian president's end-of-year speech was full of boastful optimism, but the nation remembers a year that began with killer downpours and is ending with a deadly epidemic.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (not pictured) in Tokyo, Japan, December 20, 2019. Charly Triballeau/Pool via REUTERS - RC2YYD9DLX7A

“A good year ahead can be seen in a good spring,” goes a popular Persian proverb. The idea might ring true enough for Iranians looking back at the Persian year 1398, which comes to a close March 20.

“Despite the problems that our enemy was determined to cause it, our nation managed to end the year in triumph,” President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech among mask-wearing cabinet members in Tehran March 18. But to many Iranians, the year was a collage of fast-paced developments opening with country-wide floods that killed scores and marred the last new year holidays. “All homes of the flood-stricken were either renovated or rebuilt,” Rouhani said of the government response to the disaster, though critics have called it slow and poor.

Less than three months into the devastating downpours, Tehran and its arch-enemy Washington entered a fresh cycle of tensions after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) downed an American drone as it flew into the Iranian territory near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the international passageway for over a third of the world’s seaborne oil traffic.

While the dust settled and the shadow of war faded, more trouble struck at home. The Rouhani government, backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, approved and implemented a contentious economic plan involving tripled gas prices. Already squeezed by dwindling purchasing power in a crumbling economy hit hard by US sanctions, ordinary Iranians took to the streets to vent their rage. The government responded with zero tolerance in the form of bullets that left many dead — by some accounts 1,500 — on streets across Iran in mid-November. The crackdown included a crippling nationwide internet blackout. Thousands, among them children, are still languishing in Iran’s detention centers in connection with the protests. Nevertheless, Rouhani made no reference to the November turmoil in his end-of-year speech. 

In January, Iran and the United States were on the brink of war again. The US military assassinated the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, striking his convoy outside Baghdad International Airport. In shock and disbelief, Tehran vowed a crushing response. Yet Soleimani's slaying proved to be an opportunity for the Iranian government to rally the nation behind the flag and patch up the rift caused by the November protests. Millions of Iranian took part in the state-organized funeral for the “soldier of the nation” as the top echelons of the Islamic Republic deliberated “revenge” against US forces. Only five days after the assassination, Iran’s IRGC aerospace command showered the Ain al-Assad airbase hosting American soldiers in Iraq with a barrage of missiles. The US government announced weeks later that the attack had only caused “brain injuries” to over 100 soldiers. The Iranian side of the story involved over 80 deaths, however. “We did not and won’t leave it unanswered,” Rouhani said of Iran's retaliation for the general’s death, repeating the Islamic Republic’s promise that true revenge will be exacted only after all American forces are ousted from the region.  

But Iran's moment of celebration following the reciprocal attack was short-lived. On Jan. 8 a Kiev-bound flight crashed outside Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. As international evidence mounted, Tehran gave in and made the bitter confession. Iran’s armed forces had shot down the plane “mistakenly” with two missiles at a tense time in anticipation of US retaliation. “In the case of the Ukrainian flight, our armed forces spoke to our nation in full honesty,” Rouhani said in his March 18 address. But the perceived cover-up in the aftermath of the tragedy brought many Iranians back to the streets as they saw the divide between themselves and the government widening and an all-time-low election turnout marred the country’s parliamentary polls in February.

In mid-February, Iran became a hub for the coronavirus epidemic only weeks before the Persian new year. Again, the Rouhani government faced accusations of cover-up, mishandling and refusing to release the real statistics of the crisis. Rouhani denied the accusations, saying his government had been transparent about the outbreak from day one.

Now, Iranians are ringing in the new year in the midst of a worsening epidemic that is keeping them indoors and shattering their festive moods. With the transition into the new year already gloomy, Iranians may well be hoping for an exception from the proverb this time.

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