Iran’s moderate leader Rouhani secured a second term with a landslide victory in Friday’s presidential election, winning 57% of the vote and giving a decisive victory to pro-reform groups eager to open up the Islamic republic and re-engage with the outside world, Reuters reported. Rouhani’s hardline opponent, senior cleric Ebrahim Raisi who was running for office for the first time, a protege of Iran’s Supreme Leader and the custodian of a religious charity worth tens of billions, came in second with 38.5% said Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, Iran’s interior minister.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised Iranians for their big turnout, with some 73% said to have voted. The vast turnout prompted Iran to extend the voting deadline by two hours on Friday. Many voters said they came out to block the rise of Raisi, one of four judges who sentenced thousands of political prisoners to death in the 1980s, regarded by reformers as “a symbol of the security state at its most fearsome.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani casts his vote during the presidential election in Tehran
“The wide mobilization of the hardline groups and the real prospect of Raisi winning scared many people into coming out to vote,” Nasser, a 52-year-old journalist told Reuters. “We had a bet among friends, and I said Raisi would win and I think that encouraged a few of my friends who might not have voted to come out and vote.”
The resounding pro-reform victory, however, leaves Iran in a difficult positition going forward: as discussed yesterday, in many ways Iran’s president is a figurehead since most critical decisions in the Shi’ite nation are made behind the scenes and Iran’s Supreme leader Khamenei has final say in most matters of state. Still, for purposes of international diplomacy, Khamenei rarely telegraphs what he’s going to do (his always entertaining Twitter account notwithstanding) which makes the rise and fall of candidates and the impact of elections tough to predict.
And while Khamenei lays out Iran’s strategy, it is the president’s jobs to implement it tactically by putting Iran’s policies into place, while shaping the country’s image for global consumption. Ironically, recent Iranian presidents have pursued radically different agendas. Former hard-line President Ahmadinejad busted the government budget and drove up inflation with handouts to the poor, while his successor, Rouhani tamed inflation while seeking better relations with the West. He succeeded by finding a willing partner in the face of Barack Obama, who was eager to leave a lasting diplomatic legacy in the middle east with the nation that Israel considers its arch nemesis.
That said, the sheer scale of Rouhani’s victory gave the pro-reform camp a “strong mandate to seek the sort of change that hardliners have thwarted for decades” as Reuters reported. Rouhani’s challenger Raisi, a Khamenei protege, had united the conservative faction and had been tipped as a potential successor to the 77-year-old supreme leader. His defeat leaves the conservatives without an obvious flag bearer.
Furthermore, the scale of Mr Raisi’s defeat is a humiliating blow to regime hardliners, with the cleric enjoying the backing of the Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary and the conservative clergy, some of the most powerful bodies in the theocratic regime.
The re-election is likely to safeguard the nuclear agreement Rouhani’s government reached with global powers in 2015, under which most international sanctions have been lifted in return for Iran curbing its nuclear program.
And it delivers a setback to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the powerful security force which controls a vast industrial empire in Iran. They had thrown their support behind Raisi to safeguard their interests.
Adding to the potential future conflicts, Iran’s supreme leader – his grip on power slipping – also has veto power over all policies and ultimate control of the security forces. Rouhani has been unable to secure the release of reformist leaders from house arrest. Courts have imposed a ban on the publication of the words – or even images – of the earlier reformist president, Khatami.
“People have realised that their destiny would be determined in this election,” said Fatemeh Hashemi, the daughter of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the founders of the Islamic republic quoted by the FT. The decisiveness of the victory makes the election “one of the turning points in the Islamic republic’s history,” she added.
“The last two decades of presidential elections have been short days of euphoria followed by long years of disillusionment,” said Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who focuses on Iran. “Democracy in Iran is allowed to bloom only a few days every four years, while autocracy is evergreen.”
In his next term, Rouhani will also have to navigate the deteriorating relationship with Washington, which following Trump’s vow to undo Obama’s landmark nuclear deal, appears at best ambivalent about the nuclear accord agreed by former U.S. president Barack Obama.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly described it as “one of the worst deals ever signed”, although his administration re-authorized waivers from sanctions this week. Trump arrived on Saturday in Saudi Arabia, his first stop on the first trip abroad of his presidency. The Saudis are Iran’s biggest enemies in the region and are expected to push hard for Trump to turn his back on the nuclear deal.
Rouhani doubled down on his reformist image, and as Reuters points out “reinvented himself for his re-election campaign as an ardent reformist, seeking to stir up the passions of young, urban voters yearning for change.”
At times he broke rhetorical taboos, openly attacking the human rights record of the security forces and the judiciary. During one rally he referred to hardliners as “those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut”. In a debate last week he accused Raisi of seeking to “abuse religion for power”. The language at the debate earned a rare public rebuke from Khamenei, who called it “unworthy”.
The contentiousness of the campaign could make it more difficult for Rouhani to secure the consent of hardliners to carry out his agenda, said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University. “Rouhani upped the ante in the past ten days in the rhetoric that he used. Clearly it’s going to be difficult to back down on some of this stuff.”
Additionally, the re-elected president’s agenda may be derailed by the powerful conservative IRGC, who also use their role as shock troops of Iran’s interventions across the Middle East try to derail future rapprochement with the West, said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born lecturer at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya cited by Reuters.
“Since the 1979 revolution, whenever hardliners have lost a political battle, they have tried to settle scores,” he said.
“I would worry about the more confrontational policy of the IRGC in the Persian Gulf … and more confrontational policy with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.”
Shortly after the victory was announced, congratulatory messages came from leaders around the globe, with China’s President Xi Jinping saying he looks forward to pushing ahead China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership, according to state broadcaster China Central Television. According to Bloomberg, China-Iran relationship has gone well over past four years, Xi was cited by CCTV and added that China pays high attention to bilateral relationship with Iran. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also congratulated Rouhani and said he looked forward to cooperating “to strengthen the security and stability of both countries, the region and the world”.
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However, despite the outcome of the election, many people in and beyond Iran are already looking ahead to the following presidential vote in 2021. That election promises to bring greater change to the Islamic republic because its victor will likely oversee the aging supreme leader’s succession. When he eventually dies, Khamenei — who became supreme leader in 1989 (after serving two terms as president) — will end the era of Iran’s old guard of revolutionary leaders. Members of the younger generation, that of Rouhani and Raisi, will be vying for position as the process to find his replacement picks up speed in the coming years. And as the number of Iranians born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution continues to grow, the government will have to consider whether to keep pursuing its cautious rapprochement with the United States or revert to a hostile position.