External Affairs

Iranians Celebrate but Rouhani 2.0 Faces Complex Challenges Abroad and at Home

The pot shots US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and the Iranian leaders have taken at each other in the aftermath of the election suggest no improvement in ties can be expected.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, waves to supporters in Tehran; US president Donald Trump with Gulf monarchs in Riyadh on May 21. Credit: Reuters

Tehran: Even as cities across Iran celebrated the renewal of Hassan Rouhani’s presidential mandate, the $300 billion arms deal that US President Donald Trump signed with his Saudi hosts in Riyadh on Saturday is an indication that Iran’s external environment remains unchanged – and may even become more challenging in the months ahead.

In the basement auditorium of his ministry’s headquarters, the interior minister brought the curtains down on the 12th presidential elections in Iran by announcing the final tally on May 20, fourteen hours after polling ended.

Rouhani may have described the election as the “most competitive in Iran’s history” but he nevertheless won comfortably – securing  57% of the total votes cast, while his hardline rival, Ebrahim Raisi got 38.5%. His victory came largely on the back of an impressive turnout of 73.03% or 41 million voters, demonstrated by the long lines that kept polling stations open till midnight on May 19.

“The message of our people was expressed clearly in the election and today, the world knows well that the Iranian nation has chosen the path of interaction with the world, away from violence and extremism,” Rouhani, now president-elect, said in his first address broadcast on state TV and radio on Saturday evening.

He declared that his nation wants to “live in peace and friendship with the world”, but also “does not want to accept any humiliation or threat”.

“This is the most important message that our nation expects to be heard correctly by all governments, neighbours, and especially, world powers,” Rouhani underlined.

Continuing with his pointed remarks, he said that Iran’s election showed “our neighbours” that regional security could be strengthened by “democracy and respecting people’s votes, but not relying on foreign powers”.

Foreign minister, Javad Zarif, Iran’s key negotiator for the 2015 nuclear deal which was a major point of discussion during the heated presidential campaign, echoed his president’s views.

“We derive stability not from “coalitions”, but from our people, who – unlike many – do vote. Iranians must be respected & are ready to engage,” he tweeted on Friday.

These comparisons by the Iranian leaders were a direct reference to the kingdom Saudi Arabia, Trump’s first foreign destination as president, where he is meeting with all the Gulf royals for the Arab-America Islamic Summit.

In an oped on Sunday for the Al Araby Al-Jadeed website in London, Zarif, according to Reuters, went a step further, writing,  “(Trump) must enter into dialogue with them about ways to prevent terrorists and takfiris from continuing to fuel the fire in the region and repeating the likes of the September 11 incident by their sponsors in Western countries.”

Washington’s first acknowledgment of the Iran election was delivered by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, standing alongside Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir.

He hoped that Rouhani’s term would be used to “begin a process of dismantling Iran’s network of terrorism, dismantling its financing of the terrorist network, dismantling of the manning and the logistics and everything that they provide to these destabilising forces that exist in this region”.

Tillerson said that if Rouhani “wanted to change Iran’s relationship with the world”, then he should also end Iran’s ballistic missile testing and restore “freedom of speech” and “freedom of organisation” to Iranians. He didn’t rule out talking to Zarif, saying that it could happen “at the right time”.

Playing the Europeans against the US

The US tone couldn’t be more in contrast to that of the Europeans.

EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy Federica Mogherini was first off the mark to congratulate Rouhani for the “strong mandate”. She also noted the EU was ready to continue to work “for full JCPOA implementation”.

Germany was also eager to acknowledge that the election result indicated an “overwhelming support of population in Iran for economic and political opening”.

There was consensus among Iran observers and analysts that the return of Rouhani, despite his moderate image and mandate for outreach, would not soften the US’s pressure on Iran.

“I don’t expect any positive US response to Rouhani’s re-election, nor any change in what is an unfolding US strategy to apply pressure across the board to Tehran,” US thinktank Brooking’s Suzanne Maloney told The Wire.

Sina Azodi, a Washington-based Iran researcher, said that Rouhani had signalled during the campaign that he wants to lift non-nuclear sanctions too “which I believe he was addressing [to] the US that he is willing to work with them”.

With Iran hawks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, this call seems like a non-starter.

As Washington turns the screws on Iran, Tehran will certainly move closer to Europe, as well as Russia, Iran’s long-term friend. “Yes, I think if the US increases pressure, Iran will seek protection from EU by further aligning itself with them – especially France and Germany who have traditionally had better relations with Tehran,” said Azodi.

He noted that Iran foreign policy has historically used one major power to deflect pressure from another – “that’s not new and has been the same for centuries”.

Tehran’s involvement in Syria, where Iranian soldiers are supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime and have died fighting against ISIS, is also set to continue. “Iran’s intervention in Syria is unlikely to change  as I think it’s beyond Rouhani’s reach,” said Azodi.

He felt that Iran’s foreign policy team of Rouhani and Zarif had the expertise to traverse the thorny path ahead, especially with the Saudis moving closer to Israel and a hostile US administration.

Maloney, who is deputy director-foreign policy, at Brookings noted that if Raisi had won, there could have been an “reconstitution of the multilateral coalition on Iran that emerged so influentially during the nuclear crisis”.

“Rouhani’s win will whet appetites in Europe and elsewhere for expanding trade, investment, and diplomatic engagement with Tehran,” she stated.

Celebrations at home

While Iran’s external environment in the region remains unchanged, these thoughts were far from the minds of Rouhani supporters who stayed up celebrating till the wee hours of Sunday (May 21) morning on the streets across Iran.

For the last month, Mohsan and her friend Hadis had worked tirelessly as part of Rouhani’s campaign. But, even on polling day, when she was a campaign representative at a polling station, she had some moments of nervousness. “Till noon, there were not many people coming. But, from afternoon onwards, the rush of people was unbelievable.”

After all their hard work getting rewarded, they felt entitled to let their hair down, figuratively. At seven in the evening, they sat on the green central verge of Keshavarz Boulevard, wearing scarves and ribbons in purple, the official colour of Rouhani’s campaign, checking their mobiles for Telegram messages and waiting to see how the evening would pan out.

Just like Mohsan, the entire street seemed to be filled with young Rouhani supporters – milling around and waiting for a signal to start chanting and singing. All of them were accessorised in purple hues – either in t-shirts, scarves, hair accents, head bands.

Even as the road remained grid-locked due to normal Tehran traffic, a group of around 50 young men and women were marching down the pavement, clapping their hand and whistling. Black-uniformed policemen strolled at the back of the group, trying to keep them from stopping too long at one place. Police were thick on the streets, but the mood was relaxed.

A 20-year-old woman, who wore a purple and green headband over her black headscarf and had purple nail polish, said that a group of university students had all decided to come out on the streets after coordinating on social media.

After going around in circles – crossing streets and returning back to their starting point, they finally managed to join the centre of Tehran’s celebrations at Vali-e-asr square.

More and more people joined in, shouting slogans and carrying posters of Rouhani. On the road, vehicles with supporters hanging from windows passed by, waving purple flags and blaring the popular campaign song.

Twentysomething Amin Puyamanesh had been on the roads with other friends since 5 pm “We have come on our own. There was no plan or direction from the official campaign,” he said.

Earlier this week, at Raisi’s big Tehran rally, the most popular slogan had been, “akhreh hafteh, Rouhani rafteh (the end of week, Rouhani will be gone)”. In a direct reply, the young supporters’ victory chant on Saturday was “This is first of week, Rouhani is still here”.

As the crowd become too large to fit  Vali-e-asr square, Rouhani supporters branched out on to the main radial road – with its characteristic side irrigation channel – towards Fatami square, where they marched shouting and clapping.

In north Tehran, the chinar-lined Tajrish square was filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic, with Rouhani posters being waved from the window and purple ribbons tied to side mirrors. Iranian social media on Instagram and Telegram was filled with the photos of the tree-lined street turning purple with special lighting.

Fireworks began after midnight and regularly punctuated the city’s jubilant soundscape, while Rouhani supporters danced and waved on the road till the early hours of Sunday.

The celebrations were a common sight all over the country, with Iranians sharing videos of marches and gatherings to give a sense of collective celebration. In Mashhad, Iran’s second biggest city, videos of supporters dancing wildly to music went viral. Raisi’s influential father-in-law, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, Grand Imam Reza shrine at Mashhad had successfully prevented any concert in the city for over a decade, even if the central government had allowed it. Cheekily, a slogan Tehran’s youngsters chanted was that Rouhani’s win had brought ‘freedom’ to Mashahdis – “we don’t go out of Iran, we take back Mashhad,” they shouted.

In many parts of Tehran, the slogans also asked for the release of political prisoners. “Ya Hussein, Mir Hussein,” they shouted, hands striking the air in unison. The reference was to Mir Hussein Moussavi, who has been under house arrest with his wife and fellow green movement leader Mehdi Karroubi since 2009.

“Yes, this is important to us. We want Rouhani to get them released,” said Puyamanesh. Rouhani had promised to free them in his first term and now his supporters have pinned their hopes on the next four years. Characterised as a ‘return gift’ from Rouhani in exchange for their support, slogans in favour of the trio had also been raised by supporters during his campaign events.

While young Tehranis celebrated Rouhani’s victory, the capital city council also came under the control of reformists for the first time in 12 years. Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who stood against Rouhani and then withdrew in favour of Raisi, will have to step down as mayor. The victory in the presidential election also marks the second consecutive win for the reformists who got all the seats from Tehran in the parliamentary elections last year.

Rouhani’s evening speech broadcast live on state-run TV daringly mentioned “my dear brother, Seyyed Mohammad Khatami”. The reformist former president is under a media ban in Iran. While Khatami’s name could not be censored in a live speech, state-run and conservative-aligned media skipped mention of the former president in news reports about Rouhani’s address.

Raisi is down but not out

Despite the comfortable margin of victory, most analysts agreed that the conservatives did throw everything into the election, even toning down their religious concerns ti win wider acceptablity, but their agenda did not resonate in the absence of credible solutions for their complaints that the economy had tanked.

Maloney said that Raisi’s campaign ultimately failed due to two factors.  “First, he mounted a compelling critique of Iran’s economic problems, but did not offer persuasive solutions. His campaign essentially promised to spend more”. Raisi had promised over a million new jobs and tripling the monthly cash handouts, hoping to tap into an underlying perception that the nuclear deal had not fulfilled its sky-high expectations in buoying up the economy.

Then, there was the Ahmadinejad factor. “Iranians may vent their frustrations about Rouhani’s sluggish economic recovery, but the memories of hyperinflation and the other negative consequences of Ahmadinejad’s two terms are still very fresh,” she said.

Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group also echoed the view that the results demonstrated “populism is totally bankrupt in post-Ahmadinejad Iran”.

Reformist analysts who had spoken to The Wire after the results had also said that Raisi’s promises did not find resonance due to memories of the eight years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As the results began trickling in on Saturday morning, several online Raisi supporters found a scapegoat in Ahmadinejad, accusing him of not supporting the campaign. The former president had registered as a presidential candidate going against the Supreme Leader’s instruction, but the 12-member Guardian Council ultimately disqualified him.

Vaez felt that though Rouhani had to face an “uphill battle”, his victory was “in line with the well-established pattern since 1981 of a two-term presidency”.

He described the defeat as “humiliating” for the conservatives, who lost despite coalescing around a single candidate.

However, he warned that this electoral loss will certainly not return Raisi to obscurity. “It is not a defeat for Raisi. He has already been catapulted from being a virtual unknown to a national leader”.

Raisi, who had worked in judiciary for decades, had come into the spotlight only last year after being appointed to the enormously wealthy charitable foundation linked to the Imam Reza Shrine. The appointment by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was seen as an attempt to groom him as a  possible successor to the ageing head of the Islamic republic.

Maloney added that Raisi “performed better than any other conservative candidate in the past decade with the exception of Ahmedinejad”. “He will retain a strong base within that movement”.

In his statement after the results, Raisi, in fact, had referred to the 15 million people who had voted for him “seeking change”, stating that they should not be ignored.

Rouhani 2.0 will continue to face internal challenges

While Raisi’s profile has been significantly raised, it remains to be seen how the rest of the principalist camp weathers after the results.

“Rouhani himself is very adept at managing Iran’s factional differences. I suspect he will go out of his way to counter the impression that this was a rejection of the fundamental values of the Islamic Republic,” added Maloney

Earlier on Friday, Iranian analyst and Rouhani campaign supporter Saeed Laylaz had said the “left among the conservatives” would support the president-elect, including parliament speaker Ali Larijani, chief of the inspection bureau at the office of the supreme leader, Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri and prominent MP Ali Motahari. Nategh-Nouri had resigned from his post on the eve of polling, but it is not clear if his resignation has been accepted.

“I think it will be interesting to watch,” Maloney said of the fallout of the defeat among the principalists. “Rouhani himself is very adept at managing Iran’s factional differences. I suspect he will go out of his way to counter the impression that this was a rejection of the fundamental values of the Islamic Republic”.

This was certainly the impression given by Rouhani in his official speech, where he called for unity. “Today the election has finished and I am the president of the whole Iranian nation and need help from each and every citizen of Iran and even those who have been opposed to me and my policies. I sincerely stretch my hand of friendship to all Iranian people, all factions, parties and various sectors of society,” he stated.

Tehran-based observers, however, felt that resistance to Rouhani’s policies which impinge on the economic interests and ideological disposition of powerful players would continue. These economic interests are the large business empires constructed over the years by Iranian security agencies, which are threatened by the entry of foreign companies, many of them waiting in the wings for the election results.

Laylaz pointed out that one way for Rouhani to handle the opposition from the extreme hardliners is to increase the size of the economic pie.

ICG’s senior Iran analyst Vaez warned that Rouhani could be much weaker in the second innings. “Rouhani 2.0 is likely to be a lesser president. All of his predecessors were weaker in their second-term”.