Iran is a key player at the heart of the Middle East and West Asia. Apart from its obvious strategic importance, Iran is also a self-declared defender of the Shia cause around the Islamic world. This being said, Iranian politics is difficult to manage, with a complex structure and a complicated reality on the ground. And Iranian decision-makers are well aware of this.
The recent presidential election and the second landslide victory of Hassan Rouhani is more than ever a true exemplification of such a complexity, which is often missed by foreign analysts of Iran. As such, the Iranian population always surprises world public opinion by the level of its complexity and pragmatism. Despite a highly flawed electoral system, where the elections are neither fair nor free, Iranian eligible voters participated massively in the presidential elections with a 75 per cent turnout. More than 40 million votes were cast on Friday, May 19, reported by the Iranian Interior ministry, a number higher than the 56 per cent turnout in the 2016 US elections and the 65 per cent turnout in the recent French elections.
The reason is simple: Supporters of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who was running for a second term, came out in force to vote and to stop the election of his ultra-conservative opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, the custodian of the holy shrine of Imam Reza in the city of Mashhad and a member of the Supreme Leader’s trusted circle. As such, once again, Iranians voted against a candidate who was considered to be favoured by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This has now become a well-known pattern among the Iranian population since the presidential election of 2009 and the tragic events that followed it.
However, this year’s presidential election in Iran has been politically and economically more significant and meaningful than the previous landslide victory of Rouhani in 2013. First of all, in the eyes of many Iranians, this election was a way to re-affirm and consolidate the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, the United States and five other world powers. Secondly, the landslide re-election of Rouhani is presented to the Europeans, and especially to the Trump administration, as an expression of the moderation and peaceful will of the Iranian people.
Despite Trump’s undermining of the nuclear deal with Iran, and his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch enemy in the Persian Gulf, the Iranian people who re-elected Rouhani expect him to do more in his second term to bring about peaceful measures through diplomatic management and the pursuit of improved relations with the world. Interestingly, while the Trump administration and its Middle Eastern allies put pressure on the Islamic regime in Iran to return to a policy of isolation, Rouhani and his future cabinet will have a hard time ensuring the survival of the Iran deal as well as engaging in more proactive action against the Islamic State, within a security framework for the Middle East.
Last but not least, the re-elected president needs to go back and retackle immediately Iran’s social and economic problems such as unemployment and growing inequality, which affect millions of young Iranians. Everyone, including Rouhani, knows that the economy is the Iranian government’s Achilles’ heel. Rouhani’s main opponents have taken advantage of this weakness during the past four years of his presidency and even in the three television debates before the election.
Rouhani was even criticised very recently by the Supreme Leader Khamenei who implicitly stated that he understood the “pain of the poor and lower class people with his soul, especially because of high prices, unemployment and inequalities”. Even during the election campaign, Rouhani’s main opponent, the ultra-conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi vowed that, if elected, he would fight poverty, corruption and unemployment.
Moreover, Rouhani will continue to face pressures from the Iranian hawks to adopt tougher stances on foreign policy issues, including the conflict in Syria. Surprisingly, despite the signature of a nuclear agreement with world powers, Rouhani’s influence on Iran’s foreign policy remains very limited. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force continue to support Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. It goes without saying that this new victory strengthens Rouhani’s political mandate to integrate Iran with the global economy. But the extent of his success will depend on the cooperation of Iran’s conservative establishment, led by Supreme Leader Khamenei.
It will also depend on the future actions taken by US President Donald Trump, whose recent talks in Saudi Arabia have focused on ways to contain the Islamic Republic’s regional influence. Speaking alongside his Saudi counterpart in Riyadh on Saturday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he hoped that Rouhani would use his mandate to enforce broad change.
According to Tillerson, the US wants Rouhani to “begin the process of dismantling Iran’s network of terrorism” and put an end to ballistic missile testing. The international community needs to wait and see up to what point Rouhani can loosen restrictions on cultural and social activities and push civic boundaries zealously guarded by hardline conservatives.
Last Friday, the Iranians decided to stand on the side of popular sovereignty rather than divine sovereignty in yet another election that had all the frustrating signs of making the fate of a nation. The majority of Iranians chose a way out of the crisis, rather than just a president. As a result, in the next four years, President Rouhani will continue to swim with Iranian and American sharks in the troubled waters of the Middle East and the world. His success or failure in addressing Iran’s deep-seated domestic and international problems will understandably be a major issue in the consolidation of his power, but also that of Iranian civil society which struggles to protect human rights and civil liberties in Iran.
However, one thing is clear: The message sent by the Iranian voters who voted for Rouhani against the hardliners in Iran will increasingly segue into the question of who will decide the future of Iran. After all, this is what this presidential election was really about. It was about Iran’s choice between change and continuity.
The writer is professor and executive director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre, Jindal Global University