The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani won with an unexpected landslide victory in a fiercely contested re-election bid.
Donald Trump has clearly outlined his Iran policy. Lest there be any doubt, the president has aligned US foreign policy sharply alongside the Israeli and Saudi Arabian political agenda: the anti-Iranian axis in the region. Perhaps, feeling the pressure from the Washington lobbies, not in the least the ‘military industrial’ complex, Trump has urged Washington to back the Sunni Arab camp in the Middle East. The logic behind the strategy was not clearly stated, but it does allow the United States to establish a clear enemy, thereby encouraging and justifying the sale of more billions in weapons. Other than that, the main outcome of Trump’s unequivocal policy is that it will encourage the sectarian clash between Sunnis and Shiites. Had Hillary Clinton won the U.S. presidential election last November, Russia would have played the role of ‘universal foe’. But, Trump has at least been consistent with his campaign rhetoric. Trump’s national security advisor, Gen. Herbert McMaster, increased the dose. He accused Iran of spreading weapons throughout the region. It seems nobody in Washington was phased by the fact that the decision to blame Iran as the major sponsor of terrorism in the world, repeating the rhetoric of the American political lexicon, seemed to ignore what happened in Manchester, St. Petersburg, Nice, Paris. Berlin, Raqqa, Palmyra, Mosul, Cairo and so on. For the record, it’s the Wahhabi Sunni ideology that informs Saudi politics, which considers Iranians (Shiites) as heretics, not the other way around.
This is a rare case of the current US administration agreeing on policy. Should, the intensifying FBI investigation into allegations of improper ties between Trump and Russia produce the basis for impeachment proceedings, the Iran policy would more than likely extend to the eventual replacement. It also represents a strategic blunder. Signing the contract for hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons for Riyadh might be good business logic. Trump wants to aim at the war industry to rescue the American economy. But it flies in the face of the reality, starting from whether Saudi Arabia even has the capabilities to deploy as sophisticated weapons as they have ordered, given the failure of its offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen that started in March 2015. Still, Iranians themselves stressed the imprudence of Trump’s all-out backing of the Saudis. They re-elected the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani to a second term as president of the Islamic Republic.
Iran Remains Complex but Change Seems Inevitable Now
Iran remains a complex country. It is not a democracy by western standards. But, Iran has shown the world that it has growing democratic potential in a region of the world where democracy is in short supply. Iranian citizens’ lives are still struggling between a Western style modernity and theocracy.
The five foci of power, the Supreme leader (Ayatollah Khamenei), the Presidency, the Majlis (the Parliament), the Assembly of Experts and the Council of Guardians represent a complex Shiite theocracy. Yet, the Islamic Republic also functions according to democratic rules and various minorities within it is very relevant. The Council of Guardians and the figure of the Supreme Leader of Iran, the highest political office, choose, or evaluate, presidential candidates. They also guide aspects of foreign affairs. But, they also consult with the president, who is elected by the people with regular and democratic elections every four years.
While the mere victory of Rouhani four years ago marked a turning point from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s provocative presidency, his reconfirmation on May 20 may signal an even more important change. It could signal a new breakthrough for the Islamic Republic, marking a gradual shift taking more power away from the Council of Guardians. In practical terms, Rouhani or his successor will govern with less interference from the Ayatollahs in presidential affairs of the Presidency in a shift from religious ideology to political pragmatism. Iran would become an example to the region and, indeed, to other emerging democracies. It would show that democracy can only result after an internal struggle, often lasting decades of trial and error, rather than somehow magically sprouting from seeds forcibly exported from abroad.
The evidence for this became clear on election day. Rouhani’s conservative – by that is meant one backed by the conservative Ayatollahs who either oppose or are very skeptical of reform – rival, Ebrahim Raisi lost by a wide margin, despite, or more likely because of, the formal backing he secured from Supreme Leader Khamenei. Raisi pursued a campaign, squarely aimed at pleasing the conservatives rather than the electorate. He boated his being a Seyyed, a descendant of Prophet Muhammad, and his role as guardian of the richest religious foundation of Iran, the Imam Reza Foundation. But, many still remember Raisi for his role in authorizing the execution of hundreds of political prisoners at Evin Prison in 1988. He was evidently trying to appeal to the most conservative ayatollahs.
Meanwhile, former President Mohammad Khatami, who might be considered a sort of Iranian ‘Khrushchev’ in the late 1990’s (with Rouhani, becoming ever more the ‘Gorbachev’) offered a strong video message endorsement for Rouhani. That may have been the key to both Rouhani’s success and the consolidation of the pragmatic course for Iranian politics in general. Khatami is an erudite and ‘liberal’ Ayatollah; he has earned a reputation as an anti-establishment figure. His endorsement of Rouhani all but assured a massive popular turnout of 77% at the polls – by comparison the US presidential election of 2016 last November had a turnout of just over 53%. Khatami’s reputation as a promoter of modernity and, by contrast, Khamenei’s role as leader of the conservative establishment and the image of a fundamentalist Iran gave Iranians, ensured the voters participated. Even Iranians, who normally don’t vote, came out on May 20 because there was a clear choice between past and future, ideology or progress.
In some ways, the large voter turnout and his having captured such a large part of it, put more pressure on Rouhani. The President will have to pay more attention to his electoral promises. Still, voters’ clear rejection of the conservative candidate, also mean Rouhani will have more political room to use in maneuvering more openness toward China, Russia and of course toward Europe, if not the United States and the ambiguous Canada. Nevertheless, since voters saw Rouhani’s achievement in securing the Iran nuclear deal with the United States – and the other nuclear powers – some economic deregulation and subsidies reductions have raised economic challenges, increased unemployment and lowered wages, for many Iranians. Thus, Rouhani will have to pay more attention to internal socio-economic dynamics to maintain support for the, likely, intensification of openness policies. Rouhani’s path won’t be easy, but the reconfirmed president has a chance to work toward achieving the most significant changes on Iranian politics since the referendum on the Islamic Republic of 1979 in the weeks after the Revolution.
Rouhani understands that reinforcing more progressive domestic policies and widening more open ties with the world will challenge the Islamic Republic’s religious establishment and their institutions on many issues, not the least of which is the status of women. But, to moderate the shock to the system, there’s little chance of Rouhani shifting Iran away from financially, and sometimes strategically, supporting anti-Israeli resistance groups in Palestinian Territories and Lebanon such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. These are formations that the US Department of State considers as terrorist. This is one of the keys to understanding Washington’s rhetoric against Tehran. But the victory of reformists could also push Iran to insist on following a normalization path with Washington. Hezbollah has long represented an essential pillar in Iran’s security, defending itself from Israeli threats and in sustaining al-Asad’s forces in Syria. Conservatives in Iran have shown to be divided; in addition to the presidential elections, they have lost municipal elections in many cities, which they had held onto tightly. This time the conservatives will be the ones to make overtures to find a way to cooperate with Rouhani and not the other way around. A new Iran has emerged from the polls.