The recent Iranian presidential race was a clash of peoples not unlike the 2016 American election, with rural and religious voters backing the conservative Ebrahim Raisi and young and urban voters supporting the reformist sitting President Hassan Rouhani. Things ended differently, however, when on May 20th, 2017, Rouhani was re-elected with 57 percent of the vote, beating his opponent by nearly 20 points. One of the reasons for this incredible victory was the fact that many progressive citizens see him as a symbol of change. Standing before the nation that elected him once again, he spoke of his vision for the future.
“Today, Iran is prouder than any other time, ready to develop its relations with the world based on mutual respect and its national interests,” Rouhani said.
“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.”
Many Iranian voters were enamored with Rouhani’s platform of reform. But there are some in the U.S. who feel that Rouhani isn’t the true moderate that many claim him to be, and there are some Iranians that are not so keen on Rouhani’s plans, including the conservative establishment that has pushed against him since 2013. This leaves an important question; does Rouhani’s victory signal that change is coming? Is there hope for an end to the decades of distrust and animosity that has characterized Iran’s relationship with the West and, principally, the U.S.? While the answer is uncertain, Rouhani could very well be the closest we’ve come to ending this strife since the revolution nearly 40 years ago.
Rouhani first came to power following the two term presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the notorious Holocaust denier and religious conservative that further alienated Iran from much of the rest of the world. Rouhani’s first four years were successful in part; he followed through on some of his promises regarding greater international openness, establishing a nuclear deal that resulted in the lifting of most of the sanctions levied against Iran. As Rouhani was quick to note in his speech to the United Nations in September of 2016, “Iran’s economic growth rate surpassed 4 percent in Spring 2016, the inflation rate dropped to single digits, and Iran has come close to the pre-sanction level of oil production and export.”
However, there were other campaign pledges that were not so successful. Rouhani was hindered in his ability to push for and pass legislative changes, especially in the context of greater social liberties. Everything is subject to the approval of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is not so keen on these reforms and is widely believed to have favored Raisi over Rouhani in the recent election. Some pre-nuclear deal sanctions remain in place, primarily in the realm of banking, which represents an impediment to further investment in Iran and the greater fueling of economic growth. High unemployment, especially for young people, continues to inspire dissatisfaction in the economy. According to Hadi Salehi Esfahani, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois specializing in the political economy of development, and a member of the board of directors of the International Iranian Economic Association, “People were expecting a lot more and Rouhani had promised a lot more.”
Iran is, once again, at a crossroads, prepared to either move forward and accumulate more changes or to stumble and lose what it has gained. What the future holds now that Rouhani has earned a mandate for another term is subject to speculation, especially now that the new U.S. administration has signaled heightened hostility towards Iran and a possible scrapping of the recent nuclear deal; a return to the status quo of a decade ago threatens to erase all the meaningful advances that have been made.
Esfahani and other experts expect that after a few more years, following a typical lag for policy changes to take effect, GDP growth will continue to rise. This will help fuel the development of both the energy and non-energy sectors of the Iranian economy, and, Esfahani notes, “Now they can export more oil, which is encouraging for the private sector and foreign investment and should help with growth unless new sanctions are established.”
The success of Iran is not wholly reliant on the actions of the U.S.; Rouhani has focused his international overtures on Europe, which has proved much more amenable to warming relations. But uncertainty still persists.
In this case, history seems to be echoing itself, recalling the political situation with Iran during the tenure of the last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, a man so distrusted by the conservative establishment of Iran that journalists are no longer allowed to cover him. Khatami, too, worked to liberalize Iranian society, pursuing a Dialogue Among Civilizations in the U.N. and supporting U.S. military activity in Afghanistan, as well as the new anti-Taliban Afghan regime. Ultimately, Khatami had these efforts thrown back in his face with the declaration by President George W. Bush that Iran was a member of the “Axis of Evil”.
In the next election, the mobilization of reactionary conservatives (as well as the refusal of many reform-minded Iranians to vote in protest) brought Ahmadinejad to power. If this pattern persists, then Iran might, four years from now, slide backward further into the grip of conservative forces. Esfahani notes, “Iranians have liked a lot of what Rouhani has done and will likely want to engage with the rest of the world positively, but if the rest of the world responds negatively, like how the rest of the world responded to Khatami in the 2000s… then Iran will become more inward looking.”
Rouhani has not been overwhelmingly successful in accomplishing the goals he laid out four years ago. And he is far from likely to accomplish all the goals he has set out for the next four years.
As Esfahani muses, “There will not be a whole lot of things he can do, but he will definitely push. And it is quite likely that he will have some achievement. He has better political support inside the country now than he did in the past. But his opponents are willing to go a long distance to block him. I don’t think there will be a lot of openness. What people were voting for was hope that things would improve, and they don’t want to see things deteriorate.”
But even if Rouhani cannot carry out all the promises he’s made, he represents a symbol of an Iran that can and wants to move forward. Though he is far from perfect, he can lead Iran down a path that ultimately empowers and gives a voice to the young, to those who feel imprisoned by the strictures of Iranian law and society. This possible future is evident in the fervor of his supporters, such as the Iranian Instagram celebrity Reihane Taravati, who found herself in the international spotlight several years ago after a music video that she and her friends made (dancing to the song “Happy”) got them arrested.
Taravati is just one of the many, many young people who see Rouhani as the first step towards an Iran that is not completely controlled by the dogmatic, clerical bureaucracy that has held power since the Islamic Revolution almost 40 years ago.
The last question I asked Professor Esfahani was whether he thought Rouhani represented the beginning of this new Iran, a political realignment that would continue to feature a greater place for reformist politics. He was cautious, but he indicated that it was, at least, possible.
“If the rest of the world is more open and rewarding, this improves the status of reformists in Iran,” Esfahani explained. “Of course there will be a reaction from conservatives, they will true to curb the possibility of reformists to compete, but if they see Rouhani is popular and able to deliver on the economy, they will find it extremely hard to push back.”
If we want a Middle East that is peaceful and prosperous, Iran will have to play a role. We do not have to acquiesce to demands that are unacceptable or that violate our values. Perhaps, in the end, we will not have to. But one cannot have lasting stability without a dialogue among civilizations. And, despite his faults, Rouhani may represent the best hope we have to achieve it.