Iranian president Hassan Rouhani attends a news conference in Tehran, Iran, May 22, 2017. TIMA via REUTERS

May 24, 2017

Four Things to Expect From Rouhani's Re-election

President Hassan Rouhani defeated his conservative rival Ebrahim Raisi - by a lot - in Iran’s presidential elections on May 19. As I (and, to be fair, many others) predicted prior to the election, Rouhani benefitted handsomely from high voter turnout. The conservatives’ last-minute unification in favor of hardliner cleric Ebrahim Raisi couldn’t fix his anemic platform on the issues that mattered most to voters - the economy and employment. Here’s what to expect from Rouhani’s re-election.

  • Rouhani’s victory won’t fundamentally alter Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region, including backing Assad in Syria with Russia’s help; pushing for influence in Iraq; supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon; arming the Houthis in Yemen. (Check out our facebook conversation on this topic here.) Or up its conventional and non-conventional military capabilities. Indeed, Rouhani promised as much in his first post-election presser. Why? Because the Supreme Leader says so.
  • Don’t anticipate the Iran-U.S. relationship will get better anytime soon, either, despite Rouhani’s campaign promises. When he attempted to use the success of the nuclear deal to push forward a program of easing tensions with the West, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei - and the powerful IRGC - unequivocally shut him down.
  • There’s limited hope for greater domestic political freedoms either. As the president, Rouhani has more leeway to impact certain domestic and economic issues, but in his first term he was unable - or unwilling - to expend the political capital necessary to make those changes. He could use his newly increased popular mandate to do so, but he’s likely to meet heavy resistance, as Khamenei has flatly refused all reconciliation with Iran’s reformists.
  • Maybe no more Raisi. The hard liner’s decisive loss means he’s less likely to get the nod to succeed the Supreme Leader. Rouhani’s victory certainly hurt Raisi’s previously solid chances. And Khamenei still has a conservative vanguard from which he can select a successor, so the only real loser here is Raisi.

Bottom line: Iran is no real democracy, but high voter turnout is proof positive many Iranians are willing to work inside the system on its own terms. Rouhani won hands down as the better candidate to fix the economy and begin a cautious rehabilitation of reformists. The question is, will he do it? Stay tuned.