A Popular Vote in Support of Real Change
Marina Forti 22 May 2017

In spite of everything, the popular vote matters in Iran. Acknowledging this is inevitable when faced with the outcome of Friday’s elections. Iranians have in fact re-elected President of the Republic Hassan Rouhani for a second term, rejecting the candidate presented as the favourite by the Supreme Guide and the Islamic Republic’s entire consensus apparatus. Turnout was massive, which was per se significant, with 75% of the 56 eligible voters casting their ballots according to data provided by the Interior Ministry. Rouhani was re-elected with over 23 million votes, amounting to 57%, an even stronger mandate than four years ago. His main opponent , the conservative Ebrahim Raisi, received 15.7 million votes (38.5%). It was a clear result and on Saturday evening crowds of Iranians took to the streets to celebrate in Tehran and in many other cities.

“The nation’s message is clear, Iran has chosen the path of interactions with the world, rejecting violence and extremism,” said the president on Saturday in a brief speech broadcast by state television. He also thanked former president Mohammad Khatami, a reference point for reformists, and that was a very significant gesture. Naming Khatami is explicitly forbidden by a judiciary order and, in other words, Rouhani intended to inaugurate his second term openly challenging the Islamic Republic’s most conservative powers.

Hassan Rouhani is not a reformist, he is a “pragmatic” moderate, if anything he is close to the now deceased Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He had however obtained the support of a political spectrum that ranges from reformists to moderate conservatives and is liked by voters. He therefore has the broadest national consensus ever seen, at least since the times of the revolution. Four years ago, Rouhani had been elected thanks to a large majority with the mandate of ensuring Iran would abandon its international isolation and to put an end to sanctions, save the economy and restore a degree of freedom after the suffocating years under Ahmadi Nejad. He has now been re-elected with an even greater majority and Iranians have decided to give him more time. Words of disenchantment, “nothing will change” and appeals to boycott the elections, had no effect.

And yet, not all hopes raised four years ago have been satisfied. There is no doubt that the most important result achieved by the Rouhani administration is the agreement on the nuclear issue signed in July 2015 and in force since the early months of 2016. But this agreement was meant to lead to an end of sanctions, hence a revival of the economy, and this has only been partly achieved. Oil sales have resumed (still the state’s main source of revenue), but commercial relations remain limited and Iran has not fully returned to the international banking circuit. Over the past year and a half, foreign investments and joint ventures were announced, which have now been delayed because too many in Europe fear retaliation from the United States. Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House has increased uncertainty.

So the material lives of Iranians have not improved, a topic emphasised by the president’s main opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, who had chosen “work and dignity” as his electoral slogan, repeated endlessly that the agreement “has failed”, that Iran “has been humiliated”, that “Iranians do not see improvements on their tables” and that the recession and unemployment remain. It appeared to be an easy form of attack (some international observers described the ultra-conservative candidate a “populist”). But it did not enchant voters.

One must also say that Rouhani’s counterattack was unusually harsh. It is worth remembering some of the statements he made during his election campaign as they say something about the political clash that will characterise his second term. Firstly there is the management of the economy and the res publica. During a rally, Rouhani addressed his main opponent, without naming him, saying, “You want to manage the country? First tell us how you have managed the Mashad.” This reference is an explicit one. Raisi is the head (“guardian”) of the Astan-e Qods Razavi Foundation, considered the wealthiest foundation in the Islamic world and he manages the Imam Reza Sanctuary, one of the most important for Shia Islam. Such foundations are not only charitable foundations, but also real economic groups that pay no taxes. “We want laws that apply to everyone, we do not want tax exempt institutions. Why should ordinary citizens pay taxes when you don’t” said Rouhani on another occasion. His government attempted in vain to impose a fiscal regime on foundations and one can easily envisage that he will do so again. But it will not be an easy battle, because foundations such as the one lead by Raisi belong to that “semi-governmental” sector that also includes businesses linked to the Revolutionary Guards, the country’s main military and security institution that is also an economic and political power.

Rouhani has also been attacking in an unusual manner the leaders of the Revolutionary Guards, albeit without naming them. He did so, for example, when he accused them of sabotaging the nuclear agreement with pointless provocations (such as writing in Hebrew “Israel must vanish from the pages of time” on missiles used for a test). He said that the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij (the revolutionary militia also used in the repression of protests) should not interfere in politics. He attacked the media linked to them, he attacked Irib, state radio and television that “takes funds from the government and in the meantime works against it.” He spoke of freedom and criticised censorship.

During his election campaign, Rouhani also said that “The nation will reject those who for 38 years have put people in prison and ordered executions.” This too is an explicit reference to his opponent Raisi, who worked throughout his career as a magistrate (a member of the clergy’s special tribunal) and in 1988 was part of the special commission that ordered the execution of thousands of detained members of the opposition. In just one summer 3,800 people were killed accorded to what was later reported by the Alayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri. In this manner Rouhani named the Islamic Republic’s most terrible and most unspeakable acts. The taboo was broken by Ahmad Montazeri, son of the deceased ayatollah, who in August 2016 broadcast the recording of a meeting at which his father addressed those magistrates, harshly criticising the executions as “a crime for which history will condemn us” (which is why Montazeri, considered until then Khomeini’s successor, was instead marginalised and placed under house arrest).

All this was also behind Friday’s vote and the majority of Iranians expressed themselves against the candidate representing this dark past, against disciplinary power beyond all public scrutiny, the power involving arbitrary arrests and executions. It is to this that President Rouhani was referring on Saturday evening, when speaking to voters, he said, “You have said ‘no’ to those wishing to return us to the past.”

So now President Rouhani has an even stronger mandate. But this does not mean life will be easy for him. On the one hand because voters have given him time but now expect real change, ranging from civil freedoms to jobs. On the other hand because the international framework is not favourable. Iranians have voted for diplomacy and détente, but the administration in Washington is sending opposite signals and the neo-cons are pressing for the isolation of Iran. (For this reason too it is significant that the first and, for the moment, only message of congratulations sent to Rouhani has come from Federica Mogherini, Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy).

Then there is also the fact that the apparatus that supported Raisi will certainly not be resigned to defeat. In Tehran, the power clash will, if anything, be more bitter, whether it concerns human rights and civil liberties or the management of the economy and the res publica. Parallel powers, from the judiciary to security apparatuses to the semi-governmental groups controlling the economy, will not give an inch.

Finally, it is probable that in the near future the clash will be concentrated on the succession to Supreme Guide, considering that the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 77 years old (and is said not to be in good health). Who or what will replace him? A person or a collective body? And what form will the Islamic Republic assume in the future? These are all issues now openly discussed in Tehran.

Translated by Francesca Simmons