Vol. XLI No. 27 July 02, 2017

On President Rouhani’s Second Term

Yohannan Chemarapally

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 great deal of trust in him and his reformist policies. The voter turnout was exceptionally heavy with young voters 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 polls. The moderates and reformists supporting Rouhani also scored impressive victories in the local government elections that were held simultaneously with the presidential polls. They swept the polls in the three major cities of Teheran, Isfahan and Mashhad.

Mashhad was the hometown of the conservative candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, who came second in the presidential polls. He got 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 front runners to succeed the supreme leader. The size of Rouhani's election victory now makes him the favourite to step into the supreme leader's shoes. Many Iranians viewed 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.

Raisi sported a black turban that identifies him as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He was an unknown political figure for most Iranians till he entered the presidential race this year. Raisi 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 1980's. The country was gripped by political turmoil in that period. 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. Raisi's world view in many ways was similar to that of a previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad. 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 the 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 unemployed youth.

Ahmadenijad 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 said that in his second term he would give priority to defending woman’s rights.

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 Washington and the consequent lifting of many sanctions. Raisi on the campaign trail had said that there was no need for Iran to wait endlessly for foreign investments to come in. He echoed the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei stance that Iran should rely on its own capabilities to build up its economy. There were 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 promises of a brighter future for the Iranian nation. 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 anyway since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran is among the very few nations in the region that allows its people to participate in a democratic process. The process though flawed in some ways, gives the electorate a choice of sorts, as was illustrated in the last couple of presidential polls.

Iranians voted this time for a candidate who was evidently not favoured by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. In the run-up to the elections, 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 in the beginning of the year. “I feel the pain of the poor and the lower classes with my souls, especially because of the high prices, unemployment and inequality”, he had said.

Khamenei again criticised the Rouhani administration in a speech delivered in April. He said that the Iranian people did not have to thank Rouhani “detente with the west” for the reduction of the war threat against the country. “It's been the peoples presence on the political scene that has removed the shadow of war over the country”, Khamenei stressed.  Khamenei had coined the term “resistance economy” to make Iran more self sufficient. 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, is the only way “to fight unemployment and recession, control inflation and confront the threats of enemies”.

Since the signing of the nuclear agreement, Iran has repaired its ties with the European Union (EU). While the American president Donald Trump was busy vilifying Iran in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, was quick to send a congratulatory message to Rouhani on his victory. She also reiterated the EU's commitment to the nuclear deal. This is significant because it shows that the EU has distanced itself from the American 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 on the election trail had pledged 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 huge orders for commercial planes with the Boeing Company worth $22 billion. 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 has shown that the Iranian people have “pulled out the history of our country from inertia and doubt”. President Rouhani 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 elections and a former Speaker of the Majlis. The 1997 election was won by Khatami, who now a days is 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 cross section of the country's establishment figures backed his candidacy.

A Raisi victory would have dealt a blow to Iran's rapprochement with West and would have further encouraged the neo-conservatives 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 involved the signing away of 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 focused 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.

President Rouhani speaking after his re-election expressed confidence about getting the rest of the American unilateral sanctions on Iran removed. These sanctions are discouraging European banks from providing loans for the ambitious projects that the Iranian government wants to kick start. At the same time, President Rouhani reiterated that Iran would not succumb to pressure from Washington. The Trump administration had applied new sanctions on a few Iranian individuals and companies in February after Iran conducted missile tests. Rouhani has said that Iran “needs no one's permission” to build its missile capability. He said that the capability is only for self defense and that the missile tests anyway are not covered by the nuclear deal. Iran, he has been pointing out, has never had aggressive aims but has to be vigilant in the face of emerging threats.