Hassan Rouhani returned as President of Iran in May, securing a mandate to continue his liberalising programmes. This mandate includes expansion of personal freedoms and overhaul of Iran’s moribund economy to open up to Western investors. The victory, 56% of the votes cast against 38.5%, demonstrated that the Iranian electorate preferred the moderate reforming agenda Rouhani advocates as opposed to the rigid conservatism and isolationism represented by his hard-line opponent, Ebrahim Raisi. The result was also a reflection of the growing participation of progressive, urban Iranians, a group that had historical turnout to oppose Raisi.
The stunning turnout augments Rouhani’s command in the direction of the country, where the staunchly conservative Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,and the clerics retain significant power. Rouhani enjoyed historical support from celebrities and on social media.
It is telling that even the most hardline of candidates did not go as far as to propose a reversal of the Nuclear Deal. In the deal, Iran agrees to restrict its sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for the removal of some Western sanctions. It is not warmly received by the religious and conservative establishments in Iran as they view the U.S. as their arch-enemy. However, the Supreme Leader has showed remarkable flexibility, especially in recent years, towards popular reform agendas and the Iranian people are feeling the benefits of economic liberalisation.
The election campaign highlighted the split between two competing factions in the country. There’s still a significant minority, represented by the conservative clergy and security establishment (Raisi included, as a hardline senior cleric and judge), who want to retain the rigid ideological precepts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But the majority of the electorate support Rouhani’s reform of the quasi-socialist economy and expansion of personal freedoms.
Rouhani’s campaign slogan “moderation and prudence” resonated with many Iranians in 2013 as many had seen their living standard plummet under his aggressively hardline predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His long-term involvement with the Nuclear Deal proved important. Many believe that Rouhanie was not the Supreme Leader’s first choice, but was seen as the country’s hope to end the nuclear confrontation with big world powers without destabilising the whole system.During his first term, Rouhani took Iran out of its decade-long isolation, amending ties with the EU and crucially, securing the Nuclear Deal. The Nuclear Deal saw the lifting of many sanctions against Iran. However, its economic benefits are yet to be felt by ordinary Iranians. The economy is recovering slowly, as the crucial foreign investment is yet to arrive. Rouhani still faces significant and strong opposition from the conservative establishment. His pledge to help free reformist opposition leaders, who had been held without trail, was only half-successful.. The harldliners stood firm and so the opposition leaders remain under house arrest. The new dawn of civil rights is yet to break with human rights abuses rife in the country. Many believe the situation has worsened in reality, and journalists and opposition activists remain jailed and the number of executions has soared.
Rouhani’s social reform agenda proves extremely popular with the public. They rejoice at the freedom for couples to hold hands in the city’s parks without danger of being arrested or harassed, a break from the decade-old religious canons. Most Tehran residents enjoy satellite dishes that provide them with foreign news broadcasts and entertainment. Despite Rouhani’s rhetoric, however, media censorship has not been eased. Although under his government the the speed of internet in the country was significantly improved, a still one of the lowest internet speeds in the world. Internet is still tightly controlled and many rely on proxy servers.
On the international stage, Rouhani faces outstanding challenges. The Obama administration that brokered the Nuclear Deal is replaced by hawkish and unpredictable presidency of Donald Trump. Trump only accepted the Nuclear Deal reluctantly. Trump’s national security advisors are on record as considering Iran the source of most of the troubles in the Middle East. The Congress, dominated by Republicans, has shown no sign of loosening unilateral sanctions that fright off foreign banks and businesses. Rouhani has cards to play with the U.S. as Iran provides crucial support to the Iraqi government, an American ally. The Iranian army is directly fighting off ISIS. Any effort to roll back Iranian influence there or in Iraq could jeopardise efforts to retake the cities of Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS.
The future for Iran under Rouhani looks less rosy then the warm reception he enjoyed during the campaign, as he needs to balance his reforming agenda against a conservative establishment and a less friendly U.S. administration. There is great need to secure the economic growth that Iran and its people crave.