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Rouhani Won the Election But the Battle is Far From Over

Iranians walk along a commercial street in southern Tehran’s Molavi neighbourhood on May 11, 2017.
In a working class district of southern Tehran teeming with porters, motorbikes and pickup trucks, residents have little enthusiasm about next the presidential election. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

Hardliners Will Use Everything at Their Disposal to Frustrate Rouhani’s Efforts

by Joud Halawani Al-Tamimi

In a remarkable show of democratic will, 41 million Iranians took to the polling stations last Sunday to vote for the next Iranian president, 57% of them gifting President Rouhani his second term in office.

Rouhani’s campaign was built around his promise of a more outward-looking Iran. In a notable departure from his “meet me halfway” approach with the conservative camp, Rouhani launched an aggressive attack on the hardliners in charge of most of the country’s institutions and condemned their “backward” vision for Iran.

In the first speech following his victory Rouhani stated “We will not go back”, signifying a divorce from the conservative and isolationist politics that has dominated Iran’s past. He added: “The Iranian nation has chosen the path of interaction with the world, a path which is distant from extremism and violence.”

Rouhani’s campaign promises are ambitious, and his victory was met with both hope and optimism in the Iranian street, but to what extent will he be able to deliver? As the president prepares himself for his second term in office, here are some of the main challenges he is bound to grapple with.

ECONOMY

The economic benefits that a nuclear agreement would usher in were Rouhani’s biggest bet in the Iranian elections 4 years ago. Following his win and his success at forging the nuclear agreement with world powers including the US, the country indeed witnessed economic growth of about 5% and the inflation rate fell substantially. However, the majority of Iranians did not see a significant difference in their standards of living, and unemployment remained high at a rate of 12.4 percent. According to a study by the World Bank in September 2016, poverty and income inequality also escalated. This invited a lot of criticism against Rouhani and was one of the main arguments employed against him by his competitors in the latest Iranian elections. Most importantly, it was asserted that the benefits that the nuclear agreement did bring about were reaped by the elite minority of Iran, at a high cost to the majority of the country’s citizens.

Indeed, many studies show that economic growth does not necessarily translate to socio-economic development. For the latter to take place, economic growth has to be inclusive, with an equal distribution of its dividends. If Rouhani fails to take this into account in his second term, the neoliberal reforms he is calling for will exacerbate inequality and marginalization; factors that impelled millions to vote for Raisi despite his eventual defeat. What this means for Iran’s future beyond Rouhani is not reassuring.

Still, it is worth noting that Rouhani while president does not wield full control over the Iranian economy. Ayatollah Khamenei directly supervises a substantial number of Iranian economic and industrial institutions. Meanwhile, Khamenei has repeatedly voiced his disagreement with Rouhani’s vision for Iran’s economy. Arguing against Rouhani’s calls for economic liberalization and increased foreign investments, Khamenei has advocated a return to “resistance economy”, which incorporates greater self-sufficiency and reliance on domestic investors.

IRAN’S POWER STRUCTURE

One of the main reasons why Rouhani has managed to win this election is because of his promise of significant change, with great emphasis on personal and political freedoms. This earned him support from the left-wing who were formerly disillusioned by his “centrist” approach and strong ties to the establishment. But to what extent can the president in Iran effect change given the nature of the incumbent political system? At the end of the day, whoever wins the presidency in Iran is subordinate to the supreme leader- positioned at the top of the country’s power structure. The supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, enjoys veto power covering all policies, in addition to being in charge of appointing the head of the judiciary, the members of the Guardian Council, the commanders of the armed forces, and the head of radio and TV. Many argue that this leaves the president a very limited space to maneuver. Against this backdrop, it is not promising that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, despite congratulating the Iranians for their impressive show of participation, did not congratulate Rouhani on winning a second term. Even if Rouhani manages to restore the chemistry he previously enjoyed with Khameini, the hardliners are not done with the battle yet. As Rouhani prepares to implement reforms that did not get through the first time, the hardliners will use everything at their disposal to frustrate the president’s efforts.

FOREIGN POLICY

Rouhani’s election campaign was built around his call for opening up Iran to the outside world, with the nuclear agreement at the heart of what resonated with a majority of Iranians. But now having won the election, recent events in international politics are not exactly aligned with his interests and ambitions. Most importantly, the US has gone cold turkey on Iran ever since Donald Trump became president. Obama’s relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia became increasingly strained as he cozied up to Iran, who inherently benefits from America’s waning relations with these two countries. With Trump coming to office, the circumstances have shifted. Just this week the US president has concluded a visit to Saudi, which he selected as the destination for his first foreign trip. Repeatedly over the course of his stay in Saudi, Trump emphasized that Iran is the source of instability in the region. Moreover, the visit coincided with the signing of a $110 billion arms sale deal with the kingdom, setting a precedent in US history. Israel was Trump’s next stop. This is not promising for Iran to say the least, especially that since Trump became president, he has been vocal about his disagreement with the nuclear deal with Iran; a deal that Rouhani does not cease to celebrate as his biggest achievement.

Rouhani did not have it easy the first time. Still, his second term ushers in graver challenges. He will encounter both internal obstacles and a problematic external political landscape mostly associated with the aggressive stance the Trump administration has taken against Iran since the US president has come to office. Rouhani indeed enjoyed a remarkable victory after a vicious campaign, but the battle is far from over.

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