Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has won an impressive victory to claim a second term in office. His win is a vote to continue the moderate policies that Rouhani has backed, in particular the effort to reopen Iran to the world. While that effort was somewhat fitful, the president can now claim the support of reformers who prevailed in elections for Iran’s municipal governments that were also held last week. Unfortunately, resistance to those changes will remain equally entrenched: Iran’s conservatives continue to be a powerful source of resistance. Ironically, their views are supported by the U.S. government, which sees Iran as a threat, no matter who is in power.
Rouhani won last week’s election with 57 percent of the vote, claiming an outright majority with over 73 percent of voters going to the polls. Rouhani trounced his main conservative rival, the cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who won just 38.5 percent of the vote. Significantly, his margin of victory increased over the June 2013 poll, when he claimed 50.7 percent of the vote.
Just as telling is the impressive showing of reformers in local elections also held last weekend. While mayors control the day-to-day affairs of most municipalities, local councils pick and then oversee those officials, and have great influence over budgets, administrative affairs and cultural and educational activities. Liberal candidates won all 21 seats in the Tehran municipal government for the first time since 1999, when elections for that body commenced and are reportedly leading in other major cities. Their victories are a repudiation of hard-line rule by conservatives.
They will gravitate to Rouhani, a moderate cleric who oversaw the negotiations with the West that culminated in the 2015 Comprehensive Agreement that capped Tehran’s nuclear program and is anticipated to lead to the country’s reintegration into the international community. For Iranian voters, however, the deal was the means to an end — the raising of living standards and the hope of a better life.
Unfortunately, the country’s economic woes persist. While rising oil prices yielded a 7.4 percent jump in GDP, those gains have not translated into sustainable growth. The International Monetary Fund estimates unemployment at around 12 percent but some analysts say the figure could be as high as 20 percent; among the volatile group of young people under the age of 25, the figure is much higher. And while international sanctions have been lifted, years of isolation have stunted the country’s financial and legal systems, making foreign investment a challenge.
Equally troubling is the continuing grip of conservatives over key parts of the economy and the national power structure, in particular institutions within the national security apparatus. From their redoubts, they are able to frustrate reform and to check key parts of Rouhani’s agenda. Significantly, however, hardliners are also eager to ensure that they are not blamed for those failures. While they may oppose the nuclear agreement, they do not want to be held responsible for its collapse.
They are also eager for reform to continue in a limited fashion if it means that they will access to more money and resources. No matter what claims are made about the importance of religion, the real source of power in Iran continues to be money. Even conservatives favor opening to the outside world if it fattens their own wallets.
Conservatives have an ally in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump is inclined to see Iran as the source of most of the troubles in the Middle East, as his speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia last weekend, demonstrated. Speaking before 50 regional leaders, he claimed that “Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror. It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this very room.” He added that “until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate it, deny it funding for terrorism.”
While Trump called the Iranian nuclear agreement “the worst deal ever” while campaigning, since taking office he has refused to rip it up, concluding, rightly, that he would be blamed for destroying the world’s best — and currently only — hope for keeping nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands.
We should hope that pragmatism will continue to guide his administration and the bluster of the campaign trail, given renewed expression on his current trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel, is merely him giving those audiences what they want to hear.
Rouhani is no Western-style liberal; he too is a cleric. But he understands that Iran’s best hope rests on reintegration into the region and the world and the best — if not only — way to achieve that aim is to respect international law and norms. The West should help him, not throw up new roadblocks.