Winners and Losers

Hassan Rouhani has won the Iranian presidency. The full implications of his victory won’t become clear for some time, but for now, let’s take a moment to consider a few of the winners and losers from this election. We’ll start with the positive and work our way down.

First, the Winners:

  • Hassan Rouhani: So much for all those “Rouhani is in trouble” takes. Rouhani won and won big. He crushed his conservative rivals, Ibrahim Raisi and Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, even after they teamed up in the final days of the campaign as part of a last-ditch effort to defeat the incumbent. Raisi received only 38% of the vote to Rouhani’s 57%, negating the need for a second round runoff. Despite receiving a decisive public mandate, the path ahead for Rouhani is still fraught with potential pitfalls. It’s worth remembering how poorly things turned out for his reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, who won an even more resounding victory in his 2001 reelection campaign only to be politically marginalized by Supreme Leader Khamenei during his second term. Still, Rouhani has an opportunity now to be a transformational figure in Iranian political history. He’ll need to utilize every ounce of that public support to deliver on his promises of moderation and reform.
  • The Iranian People: In a world consumed by far-right populism and anti-democratic backlash, the Iranian people still showed up to the polls in Iran and around the world on Friday to make their voice heard. That over 40 million of them did so in a highly imperfect and less-than-democratic system with only limited avenues for expression of the popular will makes this achievement all the more remarkable. Many voters had to wait in line for hours at polling stations just to cast a ballot. Turnout was a much-higher-than-anticipated 73%. By contrast, only 55% of American voters bothered to show up last November when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency. The scenes of jubilation on the streets throughout Iran on Saturday sent a powerful message to the world that Rouhani’s reelection represents an Iran that remains optimistic about the future. Just check out this celebration rally in the traditionally conservative city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran. If this isn’t joy, I don’t know what is:
  • Europe: High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini was among the first world leaders to congratulate Rouhani on his reelection victory. Europe, unlike the United States, stands ready to reap the benefits of a more economically open Iran. Many of the pieces are already in place. Since the signing of the nuclear deal, EU states have sent a steady stream of trade delegations to Iran. Most returned with joint statements about the desire to increase business cooperation and/or memoranda of understanding for increased trade and investment. But lingering uncertainty about Iran’s future leadership and the possibility of U.S. reprisals for unauthorized business activity in Iran have made foreign businesses hesitant to invest there. With Rouhani’s reelection, at least one of those concerns has been resolved. With the Trump Administration taking the United States further away from its position of global leadership, the other one may not be far behind.
  • iPPO Group: I confess, I started to get a bit nervous right before the election about whether any of the polls I had read could even be remotely accurate. In my last post, I wrote about two starkly different polls, one from a hardliner outlet that showed Raisi with a slight lead and another from the Washington, DC-based International Perspectives for Public Opinion (iPPO) Group that showed Rouhani’s support surging in the last few days before the election. I suspected that the latter was probably the most accurate reflection of what I was sensing from election coverage, but I couldn’t be sure. I went to iPPO’s website, and there was shockingly little information available about who these people are or where they came from. Their Twitter account basically showed up out of nowhere just as the campaign got underway. It all seemed a bit…weird. The results, however, speak for themselves. While the actual Rouhani tally fell slightly below iPPO’s final numbers, they were the only polling outfit, as far as I can tell, which captured the overall tenor of the Iranian electorate as unequivocally pro-Rouhani. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes from their success.

And now, let’s talk Losers:

  • Iranian Hardliners: They threw everything they had at Rouhani, but it still wasn’t enough. Even with only one candidate in the race on election day (and the other vociferously supporting him on the campaign trail in the final week of the race), Raisi only managed to get 38% of the vote. In many ways, this is an even worse performance than four years ago. Back then, conservatives could at least rationalize their poor electoral results on bad strategic decisions — such as running multiple candidates against a single moderate/reformist opponent — as well as a lingering resentment of hardliner politics after two disastrous terms of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the helm. This year, there are no such excuses. Raisi, personally, may have lost even more than just a chance to serve as president. The Iranian public’s decisive rejection of his leadership will likely eliminate him from consideration for the Supreme Leadership position upon Khamenei’s death. The conservatives still control many, if not most, of the important levers of power in Iran, including the judiciary and key institutions like the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, but societal momentum is clearly trending away from their stated principles. Their leadership is aging, and, unlike the reformists, they have few figures they can point to as their ideological torchbearers for the future.
  • American and Israeli Hardliners: We don’t usually call them “hardliners” in the West, but American and Israeli conservatives have a lot more in common with their Iranian counterparts than they’d care to admit. Like the hardliners in Iran, the American/Israeli right also yearns for conflict. They would have loved for the Iranian election to have given them a reason for one by electing — or stealing the election for — Raisi, but the Iranian people did not oblige. Former George W. Bush aide and neoconservative Elliott Abrams said as much in a remarkably ill-informed piece published in Politico just before the election. Abrams said he was rooting for a Raisi victory since Raisi represented the “true face” of the Islamic Republic. Abrams, along with other conservatives in both countries, urged Iranians to either vote against their own interests or abstain completely from the process. Doing so, they argued, would delegitimize the process and help hasten the downfall of the regime. Left unsaid, of course, was the means by which this supposed collapse could come about, but no doubt they all have dreams of war somewhere in the back of their minds.
  • Saudi Arabia: Donald Trump said his first foreign trip as U.S. President was about building a relationship between representatives of the three great world religions to confront terror and extremism. In reality, it’s about confronting Iran. Trump made this obvious in his speech in Riyadh this past Sunday when he called on the Muslim world to isolate Iran for “fueling the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” Then he signed an arms deal with the Saudis for $110 billion dollars. Rouhani’s election won’t change much in terms of their stated goals, but it will make it more difficult for the anti-Iran cohort to recruit other global powers to their cause. The dichotomy in imagery between Trump’s reception in the opulent surroundings of a deeply conservative Arab monarchy and the scenes of throngs of Iranians celebrating the results of their election sent a powerful message to the world about where these nations are at the moment.
  • Global PopulismI’m not as convinced as some commentators that either of the conservative candidates was a true “Populist” in the same way as Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen were during their respective campaigns. (If anything, I thought the Iranian hardliners were an odd mix of Islamic conservatism and Occupy Wall Street-style anti-elitism, but that’s another discussion.) Nevertheless, their defeat adds another short chapter to the anti-populist backlash of 2017 narrative. Along with the Netherlands and France — and, perhaps, soon Germany, as well — Iran rejected radical politics for a more moderate approach. Rouhani’s victory was a win for the globalist perspective, for an Iran that wants to be part of the wider world rather than to retreat inward from it. That Iranians are still capable of embracing this philosophy despite the hardships they have suffered demonstrates a faith that reason, diplomacy, and cooperation can still solve difficult problems.

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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