President Hassan Rouhani during a visit to Russia, picture courtesy of the Kremlin, President of Russia’s office, March 28, 2017.
Winning 57 percent of the vote, Iran’s incumbent president Hassan Rouhani cruised into a second term of his presidency. President Rouhani won 23.5 million of Iran’s total 41 million votes, his next nearest rival winning only 15.8 million votes. A declaration from Iran’s interior minister yesterday sealed Rouhani’s victory and launched celebrations in the streets of Tehran and elsewhere in the country.
President Rouhani is a moderate and reformist figure in Iranian politics known chiefly for negotiating a deal on Iran’s nuclear power that ended up controversial both with the Western powers that signed it and in Iran. Despite the controversy, experts such as human rights activist and Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, believe either presidential candidate would have upheld the nuclear deal. Rouhani took his election victory as a mandate to push Iran even further along the diplomatic route, saying, “Iran’s nation chose the path of interaction with the world, away from violence and extremism.”
Rouhani had also promised and still promises greater political freedoms and civil liberties in Iran – even pushing for the release of some reformist politicians from house arrest. Promoting an Iran more open to political discussion inside and out has won Rouhani a great deal of support with Iran’s youth and Iran’s middle class. This support did not just carry Rouhani to victory but also to the Tehran city council where moderate politicians won all 21 seats.
The conservatives in Iran fielded Ebrahim Raisi, a nationalist who had worked in the Iranian judiciary during an infamous massacre of opposition politicians. Despite coming out of the blue to challenge incumbent Rouhani, it seemed for a while that Raisi was gaining enough momentum to win an election. Raisi had the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and could attack Rouhani for Iran’s high unemployment.
Rouhani and Raisi’s ideas were not totally separate, both of them supporting the idea of an Islamist Republic and gained political sway from actively campaigning for it during the Iranian revolution. Both of them have worked with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s religiously appointed Supreme Leader, and both have worked years in Iran’s political bureaucracy. Yet where Raisi went into the justice department, Rouhani went into diplomacy.
In the end, Rouhani handily won a second term and another chance to push for reforms in Iran. Only now President Rouhani will truly have his work cut out for him. The Republican congress and the Trump Presidency in the United States will not be nearly as willing to cut deals with the Iran – already negotiating large arms sales to Iran’s main political opponent Saudi Arabia. Even with a strong win, he also has to contend with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s conservative Islamist Supreme Leader who maintains control of Iran’s security forces and can veto any measure Rouhani seeks to form. Continuing to grow Iran’s economy in face of sanctions and an unstable global economy will be no easier.