Rouhani’s re-election is an embarrassing defeat for the conservative establishment of the Islamic Republic
Hassan Rouhani has been re-elected president of Iran, confirming the Iranian people’s thirst for democracy and reform. His victory was not unexpected, given both his considerable popularity and historic precedent; since 1981, no Iranian president has failed to secure a second term. However, there were concerns over voter turnout, and conservatives had come up with a strategy to maximise the chances of their candidate. In the event, Rouhani was able to mobilise his supporters; voting hours had to be extended by up to five hours so that millions of Iranians waiting patiently in long lines could cast their ballots. He obtained 58.5 percent of the vote, improving on his first-round victory with 50.88 percent of the vote in 2013, and almost twenty points ahead of the next candidate, conservative Ebrahim Raisi.
The powers of the Iranian president are rather limited. He must answer to the Supreme Leader, who is the head of state, controls foreign and military policy, and appoints the leadership of the armed forces, the judiciary, public radio and TV… Nevertheless, elections are keenly contested, and the 2017 presidential race has set new records, with 1,636 people registering as candidates – among them, 137 women. Admittedly, most had no hope of their application being approved, and were trying to draw attention to certain issues. That was undoubtedly the motivation of activists such as blogger Mehdi Khazali and former politician Ghasem Sholeh-Saadi, while female hopefuls like veteran politician and journalist Azam Taleghani were seeking to reopen the question of women running for the office of president. The Iranian Constitution is unclear on this point, but in 2013 the Guardian Council – which vets potential candidates – declared that they were not allowed.
The Guardian Council retained six names, three reformists and three conservatives, representing a range of acceptable options. The former included Rouhani himself; his first vice-president, Eshaq Jahangiri, who registered to back his boss during the campaign; and Mostafa Hashemitaba, who was vice-president under both Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, and ran against the latter in 2001. On the conservative side the candidates were Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric and jurist who has served as attorney general; Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the firebrand and scandal-prone mayor of Teheran, running for the third time; and Mostafa Mir-Salim, former culture minister under Rafsanjani and leader of the socially conservative, economically liberal Islamic Coalition Party. As expected, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his protégé, Hamid Baghaei, were excluded. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who considers the former president too divisive and disruptive, had publicly advised him against running again.
On this occasion, conservative forces allied to Khamenei, the so-called Principlists, came up with a strategy to avoid a repeat of the 2013 presidential election, when four contenders split the conservative vote and Rouhani pulled off a surprise win. They formed the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces (known by its Farsi acronym, JAMNA) to draw up with a list of five candidates, four of whom would eventually withdraw in favour of the one with better chances of being elected. The Guardian Council approved two of the JAMNA candidates, Ghalibaf and Raisi, and the cleric soon emerged as the conservative favourite. Dutifully but reluctantly, Ghalibaf stepped aside a few days before the poll and called on his supporters to vote for Raisi. Jahangiri soon followed suit and reiterated his support for Rouhani. For his part, Hashemitaba urged Iranians to vote for Rouhani but stayed in the race, possibly to highlight the environmental issues he’s become associated with.
JAMNA’s plan to avoid a split vote worked, but they were not able to sell their candidate to the Iranian people. It wasn’t for lack of trying; the national television and radio networks clearly favoured the conservative candidate. In fact, Raisi, who is close to Khamenei and might succeed him as Supreme Leader, was being groomed for the post since at least March 2016, when he was appointed custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, Iran’s wealthiest foundation. A couple of months later he was granted a public audience with top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps senior officers, including IRGC overall commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, both of whom poured lavish praise on him. Furthermore, state media regularly covered his speeches and aired favourable news reports about his work with the poor. During the campaign, he tried to portray himself as the champion of the underprivileged and accused Rouhani of being detached from the concerns of ordinary people.
However, Raisi failed to convince the Iranian electorate. His performance during the much-followed live televised debates was lacklustre. He vied with his conservative rival Ghalibaf in making unconvincing economic promises, such as tripling the monthly cash handouts introduced by Ahmadinejad, or creating 1.5 million jobs per year. Moreover, his role in the 1988 execution of thousands of political prisoners (estimates range from 4,500 to 30,000) came back to haunt him. He was a member of the committee ultimately responsible for the massacre, which prompted the resignation of late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, then heir-designate to Khomeini and, subsequently, spiritual leader of the Green Movement. Last year, Montazeri’s son leaked an audio tape of a meeting during which the Grand Ayatollah pleaded with several judicial officials to stop the executions and called them “criminals”. Raisi was one of those officials, and the tape circulated widely in the leadup to the election.
Reformists campaigned vigorously on behalf of Rouhani, but some prominent figures had to face restrictions. Speeches by his supporters were cancelled – twice, in the case of women’s right activist Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of late former president Rafsanjani. Former president Khatami, who despite being banned from media appearances continues to be extremely popular, posted a pro-Rouhani video on social media. Further endorsements came from former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, academic and former adviser to Khatami Zahra Rahnavard, as well as from former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi; they have all been under house arrest since 2011 for backing the 2009 Green Movement protests. In addition, the reformist candidate had on his side celebrities like award-winning film director Asghar Farhadi, actresses Taraneh Alidoosti and Baran Kosari, and football player Sardar Azmoun, who is from the Sunni minority.
A major problem facing Rouhani was unfulfilled expectations. In 2013 he ran on the promise of putting an end to the country’s diplomatic isolation and negotiating a nuclear deal so that crippling international sanctions would be lifted. He delivered on that promise, and was also able to stabilise the economy: inflation is now at 9 percent, compared to 30 percent under Ahmadinejad, and GDP is growing at around 4 percent – the year before he took office, it contracted by 6.6 percent. In spite of this, living standards have not improved significantly and unemployment has continued to rise, reaching 12.4 percent – double that rate among the young. The much-trumpeted economic boom has not materialised, as Rouhani’s opponents didn’t fail to point out. On the other hand, women, human rights campaigners and minorities are frustrated at the slow pace of progress, which might have been behind his decisive embrace of the reformist cause during this campaign, compared to his caution in 2013.
Given the atmosphere of disappointment and frustration, there were fears of a poor turnout which would help Raisi. But when it came to it, the reformist constituency came out in force for Rouhani, and over 73 percent of the electorate went to the polls last Friday. The result shows that most Iranians did not believe the populist promises of his rivals, and that two sizeable groups, women and the young, decided to give him another chance. They have reasons to be cautiously optimistic: following the February 2016 legislative elections, the Majlis (parliament) is in the hands of reformists, and there is no shortage of Western interest in investing in Iran – the “Trump factor” notwithstanding. President Rouhani still has to contend with the Guardian Council’s veto over legislation, to say nothing of the all-powerful Supreme Leader, but obtaining four million votes more than in the previous election has undeniably strengthened his hand to continue along the path of reform.
The president’s re-election will have limited international implications. It is the Supreme Leader who dictates the general guidelines of foreign policy and has the final say. After Rouhani’s victory in 2013, Khamenei gave him leeway to negotiate the nuclear deal for two main reasons: He realised Ahmadinejad had badly mismanaged the economy, which was in a dire state; and he was reassured by Obama’s hands-off approach to the Middle East, which allowed Teheran to throw its weight around in the region. That is why he endorsed BARJAM, as the deal is known in Iran, over the objections of some of his Principalist allies, particularly within the IRGC. It is noteworthy that during the campaign, Rouhani’s conservative rivals did not criticise him for signing the nuclear deal, but for its disappointing economic dividends. However, the international situation has changed after the US elections: one of Trump’s few consistent political stances has been his animosity to Iran, and he’s enthusiastically backing Saudi initiatives to contain Teheran. The hope is that Rouhani’s popular mandate will give him some leverage over the regime hawks who might want to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy.
The outcome of this election must be seen in the context of a social and political process of democratic awakening within Iran which began in the 1990s under moderate reformist Rafsanjani, leading to Khatami’s victory in the 1997 presidential elections and to his re-election in 2001. There was a setback in 2005, when Rafsanjani tried for a third term in office but was defeated by Ahmadinejad, in an election marked by low turnout and allegations of fraud. Similar allegations became an uproar following the 2009 elections, which saw Ahmadinejad re-elected: in dozens of municipalities, turnout was reportedly over 100 percent. Millions of Iranians went out to the streets in months-long protests which the regime fiercely suppressed, leaving dozens dead and thousands in prison. The Green Movement which emerged from the protests contributed strongly to Rouhani becoming president in 2013, to the decisive reformist triumph in the legislative elections last year, and to Rouhani’s re-election last week. The Iranian people are clamouring for change, and the establishment of the Islamic Republic would do well to listen if it wants to maintain a semblance of legitimacy.