Rouhani’s Victory, the Reformist Line Goes on

The abstention risk in the Iranian presidential elections was only a spectre and on Friday May 19th voters went to vote en masse (polling stations remained open for an additional five hours until midnight), confirming incumbent president Rouhani as their leader. The reformist won with 57% of the votes compared to his conservative challenger Raisi’s 37.8%.

The over 41 million people who cast their vote chose to follow the path embarked on four years ago. Rouhani’s achieved great success also in rural areas, where a fall in consensus had been expected compared to large cities, with the countryside standing against cities, the rural proletariat against the urban bourgeoisie, which was how many interpreted the election’s central issue, the economy.

Conditions experienced by the working classes – obfuscated by those of middle classes in large cities – remain the central element after literally erupted with the miners’ protests in the province of Golestan. It is impossible not to see society’s internal transformations in Iran’s socio-economic conflict.

And yet, the mountainous areas and the mines in the north of Iran, less than 100 kilometres from Tehran, remain almost invisible. The May 3rd carnage (32 miners killed in the explosion at the Zemestan-Yurt mine) and the consequent protests against Hassan Rouhani when he visited the area a few days later, tell us a great deal about today’s Iran.

With the moderates led by the current president, Iran is a country trying to emerge from international isolation in order to diversify its economy and open to foreign capital and investments that would help with employment levels that are slowly falling. In order to achieve this, in July 2015 Rouhani signed a historical agreement with the West. The agreement on civilian nuclear power was the means for opening to the world, eliminating the sanctions and the embargo that tied Iran’s hands for almost forty years. A country, however, capable of never imploding and of remaining a power in the Middle East.

The situation has certainly changed compared to when Ahmadinejad left the stage, leaving the country to deal with serious economic stagnation, sky-high inflation (35%) and the rial devalued by two thirds. Nowadays Rouhani can rely on an increase in foreign investments ($12 billion since January 2016) and the interest expressed by Western companies and businesses in setting up in a country that is extremely rich in raw materials. Rouhani can also rely on the 650,000 new jobs created last year, on a 30% rise in the tourist sector between March 2016 and March 2017 (for a total of six million foreign visitors and $8 billion revenue), lower inflation and a currency that has been stable for four years.

During his election campaign Rouhani was able to play the card of the internal economy’s significant improvements compared to decades of embargos, the crisis caused by his predecessor’s policies and the short period that has gone by (less than two years) since the partial removal of sanctions.

There is also however also negative data such as inflation at almost 10% (a record, however, for this country compared to previous decades) 650,000 new jobs created last year, to which one must subtract the 750,000 jobs lost and unemployment at 12.7%, which rises to 29% among those under the age of 24 (those who are the hard core of his voters). During Rouhani’s first term an additional one million people ended up living below the poverty threshold. Hence the promises made by the conservative front during the election campaign. Before withdrawing from the presidential race, the mayor of Tehran, Qalibaf, had promised income support for the poorest Iranians; 455,000 rial a month (13 euros) to be paid to 30% of the population, without, however, specifying where he would have found the money.

As far as investments are concerned, internal private investments fell by 17% in 2015 and by 9% in 2016. Hence the need for foreign investments that Rouhani hoped to attract by reaching an agreement on the nuclear issue. The $12 billion that arrived in January 2016 (six times more compared to the $2 billion in 2013 and 2014) came from a vast collection of countries – Germany, Great Britain, France, Holland, Cyprus, Ireland, Spain, as well as from rival states such as Turkey and the Gulf countries. Most of the money came from China (Iran’s top trade partner), which continues to sign new agreements with Tehran, in particular in the new technology and civilian nuclear sectors.

It is on all the above that much of the election campaign’s narrative was played. While it is true that the conservative front, which at the time opposed the agreement, had already made known that it would not question it, the May 19th elections have eliminated fears linked to regional conflicts. This, if for no other reason than the presence in the White House of a profoundly anti-Iranian president who, not coincidently, flew to Riyadh on that very day on his first mission abroad, bearing a package of arms sales contracts worth $110 billion. He has now flown to Israel to reassure America’s historical ally that downsizing Tehran remains a central objective for the US administration.

All this is easier said than done. In recent years, with the civil war in Syria, Iran has been able to guarantee itself a front row seat in establishing areas of influence. From Damascus to Baghdad, the Islamic Republic has sent pasdaran, military leaders and weapons in abundance with the clear intention of strengthening the so-called Shia axis in anti-Saudi terms. Trump is now trying to encircle Iran, both by resupplying historical enemies in the region using classic tension strategies such as statements concerning a review of the agreement, threatening sanctions and making conflicting statements to keep the Islamic Republic on edge.

In any case, while as far as foreign policy is concerned it is the president who pulls the strings of diplomacy, strategy and vision are influenced by other powers, such as the Revolutionary Guard that is close to the conservative front, the Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei and the head of the armed forces. These are powers that for some time have opted for pragmatism in foreign policy, for realpolitik regarding the United States and the West.

With Rouhani isolation appears to be an option of the past. What could instead have changed, had the moderates been defeated, was a return to a more ideological narrative. While Rouhani and Raisi are both nationalists of the same kind, Raisi would probably have pushed the country towards greater formal aggressiveness with an ideological-political discourse aimed at the country’s historical enemies, which could have weakened the country’s standing in the region instead of improving it. After all, it is precisely under the reformist Rouhani that Iran has significantly strengthened its role in the Middle East without the need to create radical narratives.

This is proven by that 57% consensus achieved, a high turnout and international reactions; from Damascus to London, from Beijing to New Delhi, from Rome to Oslo, widespread congratulations were sent to Tehran on Saturday, with an awareness that the reformist line chosen by the Iranian people is the only guarantee of real openness.

Translated by Francesca Simmons