By David Patrikarakos
A victory with over 50 percent of the vote means that there is no need for a second round. It’s an unequivocal victory.
But domestic Iranian politics remains highly fraught: Hard-liners grouped around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are in constant conflict with those more pragmatically inclined like Rohani, who has promised to continue his attempts to open up Iran to the world.
As the country enters the second term of a Rohani presidency, here are six important takeaways from the May 19 election.
1. Iran’s Deep State has made its presence known
As supreme leader, Khamenei is supposed to be “above” the fray of direct politics — especially the presidential election, the most overt display of (imperfect) democracy within an essentially dictatorial system. Yet throughout the election campaign, Khamenei has de facto made his sympathies clear through repeated criticisms of Rohani. These have included major attacks on the incumbent president for failing to adequately ensure a “resistance economy” — one free from reliance on the West, which is a fundamental tenet of the Islamic republic; the need for “self-reliance” being enshrined in its 1979 constitution.
Moreover, despite backing the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (the five Security Council powers plus Germany), Khamenei has repeatedly criticized it, too — especially over the possibility that it might lead to further detente with the West, something the hard-liners fear above all else.
2. And so have the Iranian people
Despite Khamenei’s seemingly clear preference for Raisi, who also enjoyed the support of much of the state media, Iranians nonetheless made it clear that they still support Rohani’s manifesto of economic liberalization and improved diplomatic relations (while still keeping the United States at arm’s length).
Rohani made it clear during the campaign that he would continue the policies of his first term, and Iranians voted accordingly. Not all of his economic reforms have succeeded. The Iranian economy is still a mess. But Iranians clearly still prefer him to the alternative — no matter what the ultraconservative establishment urged.
3. Rohani has a stronger, though still limited, mandate
Rohani is a winner. And in this sense, Iran is different to no other country: People respect winners. It’s true that all Iranian presidents under the Islamic republic have won a second term (although there were indications that Rohani’s predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, won his reelection through vote-rigging).
But the nature of Rohani’s latest victory appears to be such that, if the clerical establishment is to maintain its democratic veneer, his critics will have to back off — for the moment at least. Though they will be back; that much is certain.
4. But it’s best to not expect too much
Rohani achieved the major campaign promise of his first term: He pushed through the nuclear deal. But, again, he did not succeed in ushering in the economic gains he promised.
Nor did he succeed in liberalizing society. Rights for women, freedom of the press, and the fate of political prisoners are all as bad as ever in Iran. Rohani is the president; he has real power. But he is not the ultimate decision maker, Khamenei is. And as long as Khamenei remains in place, a mild thaw in the international arena and limited domestic reforms might be the best Iranians can hope for.
5. Raisi could be tainted
Rohani may have emphatically defeated his main rival, Raisi, a senior cleric who is also custodian and chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi, the organization that runs Iran’s holiest sites. Given his religious and political standing, Raisi has been seen as a possible successor to Khamenei (who himself first served as president of Iran from 1981-89).
Khamenei is 77, and past reports and persistent rumors about his health have long been part of Iranian political life. There may be a vacancy in the not-too-distant future (though Iranian ayatollahs tend to live long). This loss will not have helped Raisi’s case.
6. Tehran’s foreign policy is about to become…largely unchanged
The biggest breakthrough in recent Iranian foreign policy was the nuclear deal, which Rohani achieved in his first term. Business ties with the West should continue to improve — Iran desperately needs the investment — but don’t expect detente to come anytime soon. Rohani is a pragmatist, but he remains at the heart of the Islamic republic’s establishment.
A Trump White House in Washington that talks tough but keeps the nuclear deal in place might arguably suit both sides just fine right now. Rohani’s international priorities remain economic. If financial investment into Iran can be encouraged, he will most likely be satisfied while keeping outright detente off the table. The toughest problem he is likely to face is how much Washington is prepared to put up with perceived Iranian meddling in the Middle East — from Yemen to Syria — a topic that is surely being raised by the Saudis during Trump’s current visit to Riyadh.
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