Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Iranians vote to continue on the path of engagement

This vote for Rouhani sends a clear message to the Supreme Leader’s office that Iranians want economic prosperity brought about by peaceful re-engagement.

In Tehran, supporters of President Hassan Rouhani celebrate the election result. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Getty Images)
In Tehran, supporters of President Hassan Rouhani celebrate the election result. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Getty Images)
Published 22 May 2017   Follow @AliceDrury

Some 40 million Iranians took to the polls on Friday to vote for the next President of the Islamic Republic, which represented an impressive 70% turnout rate. Commentators had predicted a high voter turnout would favour the re-election of moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani, and they were correct: he secured a decisive 57% of the vote.

After the result was announced on Saturday, many thousands took to public squares in the major cities to sing, dance and wave purple flags (Rouhani’s campaign colour). The rest of the world should be celebrating as well; Rouhani’s victory is an important indicator of where Iranians' hopes are focused.

The contest was in essence a straightforward one: vote for President Rouhani to continue on the path of reengaging with the international community after the nuclear deal; or vote for conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, closely aligned with the Supreme Leader and likely to put the brakes on Western investment. While Rouhani had been strongly criticised for failing to reap the benefits of the nuclear deal and for the increase in unemployment during his first term, the election result suggests Iranians felt that their economic fate would be safer in Rouhani’s experienced hands. In his victory speech, Rouhani characterised the election as choosing 'the path of interaction with the world away from extremism and violence'.

The reality of the situation is a little more nuanced than this engagement/isolationist dichotomy. Rouhani could never have negotiated to remove the sanctions without Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s approval, and Raisi had committed to upholding the deal during televised election debates.

Nonetheless, this vote for Rouhani sends a clear message to the Supreme Leader’s office that Iranians want economic prosperity brought about by peaceful re-engagement. Inflammatory rhetoric directed at Israel or America will not win over today’s Iranians, which is important at a time when President Donald Trump is making menacing noises from the White House. Trump is unpredictable, heads up an administration with many long-standing Iran detractors and may, one day, feel the need to prove he is a strong Commander in Chief. It would not be difficult for a conservative Iranian President to give Trump an excuse to start down a dangerous path. Fortunately for the whole region however, Rouhani’s election win will hopefully take some of the wind out of Trump’s sails.

The vote for Rouhani was also a show of the public’s faith in his mission to secure greater social freedom. A significant portion of Iranians are young, sophisticated and moderate. They are also commonly unemployed, frustrated and constrained by censorship, gender segregation and a generalised stigmatisation of youth culture. These Iranians feel ostracised by a clerical political elite that does not represent their views. They turn to the West as an idealised alternative and - perhaps misguidedly - channel all their efforts into migrating to Europe, Canada, Australia. Older Iranians are typically sympathetic to the Millennials’ predicament, and concerned about the effect the brain drain is having on their country’s future. Hopefully this win will bolster Rouhani’s power in the Majlis (Parliament) and allow him an easier path to relieving this pressure valve.

However, acknowledgment must also be given to the nearly 27 million people who voted for Rouhani's opponent, the conservative, relatively obscure former judge. Raisi’s campaign was designed to appeal to Iran’s poor. He travelled to provincial cities, where people are suffering the most as a result of Iran’s lacklustre economic recovery. He offered them cash handouts, attacked Rouhani for failing to stamp out corruption in his own Cabinet and, most important of all, has the blessing of the institutions that offer many Iranians great comfort: the Supreme Leader and his loyal Revolutionary Guard. This 38% of the population rarely make the news articles, but they are the powerbase for the Islamic Republic: they are the government employees, families of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq War, and people terrified of the wars raging along the nation’s borders.

This is unlikely to be the last we hear of Raisi and his supporters. He is tipped to be the favourite to succeed the frail Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader, and was using this presidential race as his public debut. Commentators have observed that his bid for the top job may be more difficult now that he has lost the public’s vote, but the Supreme Leader is selected by the opaque Assembly of Experts, and it seems they are significantly invested in Raisi.

Iran’s future is uncertain. Trump’s administration will do its best to destabilise the country by undermining the nuclear deal and arming Iran’s enemies. But, in a region gripped by war, this is undoubtedly a heartening result for all of those both in and outside of Iran who hope for a more peaceful and prosperous future.

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