Hassan Rouhani’s landslide victory in the Iranian presidential election on Friday, 17 May heralds a continuation on the country’s path towards global re-engagement, both on a popular level and in terms of economic and political cooperation. However, the intense campaign that preceded the election points to increasing tension between state institutions such as the presidency, and parallel institutions, including the Revolutionary Guard and parts of the clerical establishment, especially since presidents have previously frequently become more confrontational towards such institutions at the end of their tenures, as evidenced by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fallout with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2011.
With a turnout of nearly seventy-five per cent, Rouhani’s victory, by a margin of twenty per cent over his nearest competitor, principlist cleric Sayyed Ibrahim Raisi, suggests an evolutionary shift within the calculus of Iranians. Although many citizens had previously abstained from voting as it had been seen as endorsing the system, Iranians, in particular those from younger and urban backgrounds, are increasingly turning to the electoral process to shape the country’s politics. Further, most citizens prefer non-violent, incremental changes to Iran’s governance structures. Trita Parsi observes that in most Iranian elections the system outsider has had the most appeal – Khatami in 1997 and Ahmadinejad in 2005 are examples – because Iranian citizens see elections as the only means of altering the country’s political trajectory. Significantly, Khamenei tacitly supported Raisi, especially in the weeks preceding the poll through criticisms of the nuclear deal and of Rouhani’s ‘unwillingness’ and ‘inability’ to implement a ‘resistance economy’. He also publicly confronted the administration over its acceptance of a UNESCO-developed education curriculum, which some saw as undermining gender roles, although the programme had been endorsed, with little opposition, in 2015.
Rouhani’s victory also benefited from the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal in 2015 – despite the less-than-expected foreign investment that followed – and the growth of Iran’s economy by over 10 per cent in 2016, which caused the riyal to appreciate. Fears over a curb in social freedoms if a principlist candidate were to win also influenced the poll, especially since candidates such as Raisi and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf had repressed dissent in the past.
Campaigning had been vigorous, and the candidates – especially Rouhani – crossed many ‘red lines’. The president blamed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for stunting the gains of the nuclear deal; the judiciary for its limits on freedoms; and the public news broadcaster for backing Raisi. He also offended the clergy by demanding that the largest Islamic charity organisation, Astan Quds Razavi, headed by Raisi, be subjected to tax compliance. He further accused the IRGC of crowding out private business. Raisi and Ghalibaf conversely pointed out the nuclear deal’s failings, corruption and recent increases in unemployment during Rouhani’s incumbency. This is typical of Iranian politics, where intense competition for positions increases openness, accountability and criticism, especially in electoral years. The system thus provides room for and tolerates a diversity of opinions, despite vigorous vetting of candidates.
Although most power in Iran remains vested in the Supreme Leader, the president is able to shape most domestic and economic policies through his ability to appoint staff to key institutions, and because of the power he wields in formulating these. Further, in most instances the Supreme Leader prefers to maintain an image of political insulation, and usually contours his political pronouncements in line with popular sentiment, opting to work through informal institutions to realise his preferences. Rouhani’s victory will require him to continue his attempts of increased cooperation globally. This is despite the fact that Khamenei has become disenchanted with this stance, fearing potential reforms, and will act to inhibit it. Further, although many of Rouhani’s criticisms of the IRGC, judiciary and clerical establishment in the regime were politicking, these direct and sharp criticisms and the tendency of Iranian presidents to seek to empower their office in the second term will escalate confrontation between these competing centres of power. This will especially be the case as Rouhani considers his legacy, which is important for Rouhani since seventy-eight-year-old Khamenei reportedly suffers from cancer, and it is reliably believed that Rouhani (and Raisi), wish to succeed him. Therefore, Rouhani tacitly criticised the IRGC and the judiciary in his victory speech, acknowledged his support for the popular reformist cleric and former president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), and promised to negotiate directly with the Trump administration for the removal of non-nuclear sanctions.
At a regional level, Rouhani’s victory will not drastically alter the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts, although the administration seems to prefer political solutions to both. Khamenei and the IRGC largely control foreign policy, particularly in this arena. The Iranian-Saudi cold war will likely endure, especially since the Saudi monarchy continues to replenish its military capacity, and because the Trump administration’s pronouncements have emboldened hawks on both sides. Rouhani’s victory will, however, guarantee the maintenance of the nuclear deal, and intensify the administration’s attempts to increase its economic benefits. This will be challenging, especially since the USA is unlikely to remove its ‘non-nuclear’ sanctions component, which has so far complicated efforts to invest in the country and caused its economy to remain sluggish. Rouhani will need to consider domestic measures, such as enhancing productivity and cracking down on corruption, to stimulate economic growth.
Despite Rouhani’s massive victory, he will face constraints both from Iran’s complex governance structure and regional ructions. Significantly, Raisi’s populist rhetoric, including pledges to increase subsidies and create jobs, attracted over 15 million votes (thirty-eight per cent). If Rouhani fails to fulfil his campaign promises, we will see a rise in opposition numbers, opening the doors to a principlist resurgence.