A mandate for reform

Hassan Rouhani gets elected for a second term as President, in what is seen as the electorate’s unequivocal approval of his reforms and the country’s nuclear deal with the U.S.

Published : Jun 07, 2017 12:30 IST

President Hassan Rouhani gives a televised speech in Tehran after he won the election, on May 20.

President Hassan Rouhani gives a televised speech in Tehran after he won the election, on May 20.

The emphatic electoral victory registered by the incumbent President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, in the third week of May is proof that the vast majority of the Iranian people still repose a great deal of trust in him and his reformist policies. The voter turnout was exceptionally high, with young people coming out in larger numbers than before. Rouhani won 57 per cent of the votes. More than 70 per cent of Iran’s 56 million voters cast their ballots despite calls from opposition groups based in Western capitals for a boycott of the election. The moderates and the reformists supporting Rouhani also scored impressive victories in the local government elections that were held simultaneously with the presidential election. They swept the elections in the three major cities of Tehran, Isfahan and Mashhad.

Mashhad is the hometown of the conservative candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, who came second in the presidential election. He got only 38.7 per cent of the votes, despite sections of the influential clergy supporting him. Raisi is known to be close to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He was appointed by Khamenei as the Custodian of Astan Quds Razawi, one of the richest Islamic charities, only last year. Raisi and Rouhani are said to be the frontrunners to succeed the Supreme Leader. Many Iranians view these elections as a precursor to the election to the post of Supreme Leader. All important government decisions need the Supreme Leader’s stamp of approval. The size of Rouhani’s election victory now makes him the favourite to step into the Supreme Leader’s shoes.

Raisi sports a black turban, which identifies him as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Raisi was an unknown political figure for most Iranians until he entered the presidential race this year. He had made his reputation as a prosecutor and judge who took a tough stand against those questioning the basic tenets of the Islamic Republic. Raisi has been accused of sending hundreds of Iranians to their deaths during the late 1980s, when the country was in the grip of political turmoil. Raisi has refused to comment on these accusations. He is also a vocal proponent of economic nationalism, stating that Iran should depend on itself rather than put too much emphasis on the West for the revival of the country’s economy.

Populist agenda

Raisi’s world view, in many ways, is similar to that of a previous President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both are stridently anti-West and, at the same time, fought elections on a populist domestic agenda that gave importance to the welfare of the poorest sections of Iranian society. Raisi had promised to triple the cash subsidy that poor Iranians receive every month from the government and pay generous unemployment benefits to the youth.

Ahmadinejad had in fact thrown his hat into the presidential contest this time too, but his candidature was not approved by the country’s Guardian Council. The Council consists of senior clerics and jurists. Ayatollah Khamenei had openly advised Ahmadinejad against running again for President. All the women candidates who wanted to run for the presidency were also barred by the Guardian Council. Women candidates, however, did well in the city council and provincial elections. Rouhani in his election speeches had said that he would give priority to defending women’s rights in his second term.

There were fears that many voters would desert Rouhani as the Iranian economy remained relatively stagnant despite the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and the consequent lifting of many sanctions. Raisi had said on the campaign trail that there was no need for Iran to wait endlessly for foreign investments to come in. He echoed Ayatollah Khamenei’s stance that Iran should rely on its own capabilities to build its economy. There were also serious charges of corruption made against some close associates of Rouhani by leading conservative figures.

But the Iranian people chose to repose their faith in the leadership of the 68-year-old Rouhani and his promise of a brighter future for Iran. Rouhani, it seems, also got votes from those Iranians who consider themselves moderate conservatives. The “anti-extremist” coalition Rouhani and his supporters had forged seems to have struck a chord with the electorate. Rouhani attacked the “hardliners” supporting Raisi as “those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut”. No Iranian President so far has lost a bid for a second term since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran is among the very few nations in the region that allows its people to participate in a democratic electoral process. The process, though flawed in some ways, gives the electorate a choice of sorts, as was illustrated in the last couple of presidential elections.

Iranians voted this time for a candidate who was evidently not favoured by Ayatollah Khamenei. In the run-up to the election, Khamenei had openly criticised the state of the Iranian economy under Rouhani’s stewardship. “Unemployment, recession and inflation—issues that could win or lose an election—all remain major problems in the last months of Rouhani’s first four-year term,” Khamenei had said in a speech he delivered at the beginning of the year. “I feel the pain of the poor and the lower classes with my soul, especially because of the high prices, unemployment and inequality,” he had said.

Khamenei criticised the Rouhani administration again in a speech delivered in April. He said that the Iranian people did not have to thank Rouhani’s “detente with the West” for the reduced threat of war against the country. “It’s been the people’s presence on the political scene that has removed the shadow of war over the country,” said Khamenei. Khamenei had coined the term “resistance economy” to describe Iran’s aspirations for self-sufficiency. This policy implicitly opposed the current Iranian government’s policy of opening up Iran to international trade and investments. Implementation of a “resistance economy”, Khamenei said, was the only way “to fight unemployment and recession, control inflation and confront the threats of enemies”.

Since the signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015, Iran has repaired its ties with the European Union (E.U.) as well. While U.S. President Donald Trump was busy vilifying Iran in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the E.U.’s chief of foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, was quick to send a congratulatory message to Rouhani on his victory. She also reiterated the E.U.’s commitment to the nuclear deal. This is significant because it shows that the E.U. has distanced itself from U.S. and Saudi efforts to undermine the nuclear deal. The Europeans will no longer be willing to adhere to the unilateral sanctions on Iran imposed by the West. Rouhani had pledged on the election trail to get rid of all the remaining sanctions against Iran at the earliest, despite the new threats emanating from the Trump administration.

For that matter, even the Trump administration is quietly doing business with Iran. Iran has placed a huge order for commercial planes, worth $22 billion, with the Boeing Company. The Iranian contract will create 18,000 new American jobs. President Trump has, in recent months, signed crucial waivers of certain sanctions that will allow the nuclear deal to proceed.

Rouhani said that the margin of his victory had shown that the Iranian people had “pulled out the history of our country from inertia and doubt”. He also thanked the former President, Mohammad Khatami, and a former contender for the presidency, Ali Ahmed Nateq-Nouri. The latter was the conservative candidate in the 1997 presidential election and a former Speaker of the Majlis. The 1997 election was won by Khatami, who is currently in the bad books of the conservative clergy. But the very fact that Rouhani had the backing of both the “moderate” Khatami and the “conservative” Nateq-Nouri showed that a wide cross section of the country’s establishment figures backed his candidacy.

A Raisi victory would have dealt a blow to Iran’s rapprochement with the West and would have further encouraged the neoconservatives in Washington in their efforts to undermine the nuclear deal. Though many prominent Iranians are against the nuclear deal, which they think was weighted heavily in favour of the West and gave away sovereign rights, Raisi himself did not personally criticise the deal while campaigning. This was because the nuclear deal is hugely popular with the Iranian people.

Raisi’s focus during the campaign was on the state of the economy. An opinion poll conducted during the campaign showed that 72 per cent of Iranians believed that the economy had not improved after the signing of the nuclear deal.

Speaking after his re-election, Rouhani expressed confidence about getting the rest of the U.S. unilateral sanctions against Iran removed. These sanctions are discouraging European banks from providing loans for ambitious projects that the Iranian government wants to resume. Rouhani said that if Ayatollah Khamenei permitted it, he would try to initiate talks with the U.S. to try and get the rest of the unilateral sanctions removed. “It will be difficult, but not impossible,” he said about such a possibility. At the same time, he reiterated that Iran would not succumb to pressure from the U.S.

The Donald Trump administration had imposed new sanctions on a few Iranian individuals and companies in February after Iran conducted missile tests. Rouhani said that Iran needed “no one’s permission” to build its missile capability. He said that such a capability was only for self-defence and that the missile tests anyway were not covered by the nuclear deal. Iran, he pointed out, had never had aggressive aims but had to be vigilant in the face of emerging threats.

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