Rouhani’s mandate for Iran: an opportunity for all stakeholders
24 May 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.

Hassan Rouhani was decisively re-elected as president of Iran for another four years in last Friday’s elections. According to interim results released on Saturday and announced by Iran’s state TV, Rouhani had obtained an absolute majority of 57% of the votes cast, compared with the 38% cast for his principal rival, conservative Ebrahim Raisi.

The other two remaining candidates, moderate Mustafa Hashemitaba and conservative Mostafa Mirsalim, obtained less than 2% of the votes between them, which was insufficient to affect the end result. (Initially there were six candidates, but two withdrew earlier during election week).

By all measures the elections were a success. Total turnout was high, being more than 40 million out of the 56 million Iranians eligible to vote. There were no reported cases of election fraud, or intimidation on polling day. Seniors within the theocracy were keen for a clean, trouble-free election, and extended the polling hours at some booths to accommodate the larger-than-expected voter turn-out.

The election outcome clearly defined national sentiment. It was a stark contest between reformist/moderates and conservatives, not of personalities. A majority of Iranians made it clear they wanted to take Rouhani up on his offer of further social reforms, economic growth, employment opportunities and engagement with the West.

According to media reports, the electioneering was more lively than anticipated in terms of personal and institutional criticism. Some of the exchanges between Rouhani and Raisi were quite terse, and Rouhani breached what had previously been “no-go areas” such as human rights, political prisoners and the suppression of freedom of dissent. In doing so, he went beyond his moderate image to become, by Iranian standards, a reformist. That might foreshadow his future willingness to challenge the traditional conservative establishment more forcefully, if still cautiously.

Rouhani now has a mandate from the majority of Iranians. In fact, his mandate has improved since first elected president in 2013, when he received just 51% of the vote. Rouhani’s ambition to deliver on social reform won’t be easy, given the entrenched conservatism in parts of society. It is possible, however, that he might receive more support, or at least less resistance, from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei than many anticipate. Khamenei certainly isn’t blind to the forces of change; presumably he has tolerated the progressive, but modest and incremental, social liberalisation that has occurred over recent years.

Economic development would be universally welcomed in Iran, including by the conservative establishment. Elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and others, are highly involved in large scale charitable multi-million and multi-billion business enterprises (bonyads) which would prosper significantly from foreign investment. Whether the inevitability of change and the convergence of interests will provide Rouhani with the leverage to persuade the establishment to agree to greater compromise with the West—particularly on security issues—remains to be seen.

In economic terms, the primary aim of such compromise would be to lift the uncertainty about the reach of US international financial sanctions, which continues to intimidate foreign investment in Iran.

Internationally, Western countries especially should view Rouhani’s re-election as positive. Rouhani’s goal of achieving greater engagement and cooperation with the West will hopefully mean an increasingly constructive working relationship on international security issues, both regional and global. For Rouhani, the challenge will be Western demands for compromise.

But the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia can be expected to play hardball. Generally, they see an increasingly prosperous Iran as increasingly influential, and thus more capable of confronting their security interests. Iranian support to terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah is one element, and from a Saudi and Gulf States perspective, the Sunni–Shia contest being played out through regional proxy wars is another.

Iran will continue to be a major part President Trump’s discussions with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel, during his present visit to those countries. In a press conference in Riyadh on 20 May, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who’s accompanying Trump, said he was open to a ‘constructive conversation’ with Iran. He also gave a clear indication that the US would expect any compromise to include Iran ending its ‘destabilising’ actions in the region by dismantling its network and financing of terrorism, ending ballistic missile tests. Given the power structure in Iran, Rouhani doesn’t have control over the IRGC or security forces generally. That control rests with the Supreme Leader. Iran would also argue that the issues for compromise aren’t one-sided.

In the longer term, the outcome of the elections must enhance Rouhani’s standing as a potential successor to Khamenei as Supreme Leader, and diminish those of Raisi. No doubt all stakeholders are doing their sums.