Iran’s pres­i­dent roundly de­feats hard-liner’s chal­lenge

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ERIN CUN­NING­HAM erin.cun­ning­ham@wash­post.com Karen DeYoung in Riyadh con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle.

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.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Sup­port­ers of Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Hassan Rouhani rally in Tehran on Satur­day af­ter Rouhani, who is push­ing for re­form, was re­elected.

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