By Erin Cunningham,
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.
“He’ll remain a centrist,” Kupchan said. But “will be more aggressive in pursuing reforms.”
Rouhani and his reformist backers also dealt a devastating blow to Iranian conservatives, most of which supported Raisi and scoff at the soft power of the incumbent leader’s diplomacy.
Turnout reached roughly 70 percent, with around 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 currently 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 Guidance 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 Karoubi — 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 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.
Still, Raisi has pledged to continue to negotiate with the United States to persuade them to lift non-nuclear sanctions. Despite the tensions, Rouhani sees Iran as benefiting from the West and from 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.”
At home, Rouhani will likely struggle with more progressive political reform. He has failed to secure the release of Mousavi, Rahnavard, and Karoubi from house arrest. Iran enjoys greater access to social media and the Internet, and reformist publications and Facebook pages flourished. But activists and journalists are still detained and jailed. Even with his strong mandate, it is unclear how much he will be able to achieve.
“Rouhani will continue to face an uphill climb on political reform,” Kupchan said.
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.