Iran: Rouhani Secures Second Term With Sweeping Mandate

5 MINS READMay 20, 2017 | 13:51 GMT

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has won another term in office by a landslide. On May 20, Iran's Ministry of Interior announced that the incumbent won 57 percent of the vote in the presidential election held the day before, soundly defeating conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who won just 38.5 percent of the public's support. In a race that drew over 70 percent of the electorate to the polls, Rouhani scored a victory bigger than the one that initially brought him into office in 2013.

The president's sweep of the election will give him a larger popular mandate during his second term than he had in his first. Economic reform and Iran's reintegration with the global economy will continue to be at the heart of his agenda. Rouhani will now build on the successes of his first term, in which he stabilized the economy, got inflation under control, negotiated with the West to lift sanctions on Iranian oil exports, and prepared to liberalize parts of the energy sector to attract foreign firms. The entrenched interests of powerful factions in Iran, however, will also continue to stand in the way of major reform.

Though economic progress remains the centerpiece of Rouhani's policy platform, he also took a stronger stance on political and social change during this year's campaign. At his last rally in the holy city of Mashhad, Rouhani set the country's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in his crosshairs, saying, "We just have one request: for the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards to stay in their own place for their own work." The statement signaled Rouhani's intention of reining in the IRGC. But as a military institution with considerable reach, funding and financing — not to mention the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — the IRGC will not be easily cowed. The same can be said of the country's other unelected institutions with checks on the presidency that Rouhani hopes to weaken, such as the powerful Guardian Council and the judiciary.

Of course, a candidate's rhetoric doesn't always match his actions once in office. Though the moderate Rouhani took on a reformist bent in the lead-up to the election, it remains to be seen how many of his pledges he will push for, and how strongly. In Iran, second-term presidents typically don't fare well: Rouhani's three predecessors won second terms by wide margins, only to find themselves stonewalled by the supreme leader — encounters they ultimately lost. Rouhani's relationship with Khamenei will thus be crucial to watch over the next four years.

Because Iran's two-term presidents are often lame ducks, it's not uncommon for the political system they operate in — especially the portions subject to election — to turn its attention to the next election and undermine the president's interests to suit its own. By the same token, lame-duck presidents also have a freer hand to openly challenge these institutions. But Rouhani may be unique in both regards, since he is angling not just to push through reforms but also to eventually succeed Khamenei as supreme leader.

Rouhani clearly has the backing of much of the public, but he's not the only politician seeking Khamenei's post. In fact, it is widely believed that his challenger in the presidential race, Raisi, is being groomed for the role himself. The relatively unknown Raisi was likely permitted to run against Rouhani to strengthen his standing with the Iranian public. His performance in the race, though not disastrous, was not particularly impressive — a fact that will not help him in his quest to become supreme leader, even if it will not remove him from the shortlist of candidates.

Meanwhile, Iran's foreign policy is unlikely to change much over the next four years. Rouhani has spoken for decades about his country's need to open negotiations with the United States on a broader array of issues. During his first term, he kept his focus on working toward a deal with the West on Iran's nuclear program. And in the final stretch of his campaign, he doubled down on that approach by vowing to work with Washington to get the remaining sanctions on Iran lifted, if Khamenei allows it. Following through with this promise will be nearly impossible to do, given the number of powerful Iranians implicated by the non-nuclear sanctions, and the demands U.S. President Donald Trump would make of Tehran. (Trump, after all, is currently in Riyadh with the intent of building a Sunni alliance able to counter the influence of Shiite Iran in the Middle East.) Nevertheless, this indicates that Iran's priority of reintegrating its economy with the rest of the world will go unchanged.

This raises an important question, though: How well will Rouhani be able to break through the barriers to reform thrown up by the country's influential interest groups? Should he overcome them and solve Iran's economic problems, he will be positioned as the leading candidate to someday replace Khamenei. If, however, he fails and becomes an enemy of the country's political establishment, Rouhani could find himself blacklisted like the three presidents who came before him.

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