Iran’s president roundly defeats hard-liner’s challenge
istanbul — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was reelected to a second term by a landslide, the interior minister declared Saturday, presenting him a resounding endorsement of his plans to end Iran's pariah status and rejoin the global economy.
With 57 percent of the vote, Rouhani defeated his hard-line rival, Ebrahim Raisi, who had the backing of the ruling clergy and allied security forces. He also won a clear mandate to push through domestic reforms and pursue talks with the West, building on the nuclear deal he negotiated with world powers. That agreement, which Rouhani and his cabinet clinched during his first term, constrains Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief.
“The landslide victory gives Rouhani a mandate he did not have during his first term,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of Eurasia Group, a political risk firm.
“Great nation of Iran, the main winner of these elections is you,” Rouhani said in a televised speech Saturday. “Our nation wants to live in peace and friendship with the world,” he said. “But at the same time, it will accept no humiliation or threat.”
Rouhani and his reformist backers also dealt a devastating blow to Iranian conservatives, most of whom supported Raisi and scoff at the soft power of the incumbent leader's diplomacy.
Turnout reached roughly 70 percent, with about 40 million Iranians casting ballots nationwide Friday. At stake was whether Iran would continue to open up to the world or return to the diplomatic and economic isolation of the past.
Raisi and his supporters appeared to favor policies associated with former president and populist firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was under his leadership that the United Nations began sanctioning Iran for failing to halt its uranium enrichment program.
But while Rouhani managed to remove sanctions, economic growth remains slow and unemployment high. Many Iranians still live in poverty, and Raisi, who heads Iran’s largest religious endowment, seized on the discontent to appeal to the poor and run a populist campaign. The effort, though, ultimately failed.
“Despite poor economic conditions, [Iranians] said no to populism and empty promises of government subsidies,” said Reza H. Akbari, a researcher on Iranian politics at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
“This is especially refreshing given the recent rising populist trends in Europe and the U.S.,” he said. “The Iranian system is far from fair and balanced. However, Iranians demonstrated their belief that the most effective path to reform is . . . through the ballot box.”
Iran’s president commands the state's vast bureaucracy and also has the ability to shape foreign and domestic policy. But all matters of the state must eventually be approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council, a body of theocrats.
There were worries before the vote that Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard, Iran’s shadowy but most powerful security institution, would rig the results to ensure a Raisi win. In the 2009 election, widespread suspicions of fraud led to a grass-roots protest movement by reformists against the state and then-president Ahmadinejad. The demonstrations were brutally quashed, and the opposition leaders — including Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi — remain under house arrest.
“It’s very noteworthy that Khamenei did not force a Raisi win,” Kupchan said. There has been speculation that Khamenei had chosen Raisi as his potential successor.
“The erstwhile successor to the leader took a body blow tonight,” he said. “And the path to a more moderate successor to Khamenei is now at least somewhat clearer.”
On the international front, Iran will have to confront the more bellicose administration of President Trump. As the presidential vote in Iran took place, Trump landed Saturday in Saudi Arabia, which is Iran's main rival. His administration has placed the nuclear deal under interagency review and recently imposed new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program.
In the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that he hoped the Iranian president uses a new term “to begin dismantling Iran’s network of terror” and support for “destabilizing forces in this region,” as well as ending ballistic missile testing and restoring “the rights of Iranians to freedom of speech, freedom of organization.”
“If Rouhani wants to change Iran’s relations with the rest of the world, those are the things he can do,” Tillerson said in a news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
Tillerson said that he would be willing to talk with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, although “at this point I have no plans to call.”
Still, Rouhani has pledged to continue to negotiate with the United States to persuade them to lift non-nuclear sanctions. In Rouhani's vision, Iran can benefit from friendlier relations with the West and greater foreign investment. And, apparently, Iranian voters agree.
“Iranian voters sent a resounding message to the Trump administration,” Akbari said. “They are committed to the path of diplomacy and moderation. They stand behind Rouhani's attempts to break the country's isolation.”
According to Akbari, “The moderate and reformist elements within the society are fully aware of Rouhani's shortcomings when it comes to human rights and guaranteeing social freedoms.
“However, they decided to give him a second chance to deliver on his promises,” he said.
Supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rally in Tehran on Saturday after Rouhani, who is pushing for reform, was reelected.