Tasks before reelected Iran President Hassan Rouhani!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
As expected, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has been re-elected in a landslide victory, endorsing his efforts to re-engage with the west and offer greater freedoms at home.
Amid a large 73 percent turnout of eligible voters, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani won a first-round victory in the May 19 presidential election, garnering a decisive 57 percent of the vote, far exceeding his 50.7 percent majority in the 2013 election. Rouhani’s main rival, Ibrahim Raisi, garnered 38 percent of the vote despite having the clear backing of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the security establishment led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Since July 2016, Raisi has been considered a front-runner to potentially succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader. The 2017 election outcome could represent a key turning point in Iranian politics and Iran’s relationship to the international community.
Iranians have said a resounding Yes to President Rouhani who, in recent years and particularly during the last several weeks of campaigning, promised to expand individual and political freedoms and make all those centres of power, like the Revolutionary Guard, accountable. He also promised a moderate vision and an outward-looking Iran and, at rallies, openly attacked the conservative-dominated judiciary and security services. Another challenge will come from abroad, and the relations with the new US government. President Donald Trump opposes the nuclear deal which eased sanctions on the Middle Eastern country, but his White House renewed it earlier this week.
Iran today faces two most important problems: one its forward looking foreign policy and economic stagnancy- both are intertwined. .
The core reason for Rouhani’s significant victory is that he had delivered on a key promise—achieving the lifting of sanctions in conjunction with a landmark agreement with the United States and other major powers to implement restraints on Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians have faith in his leadership.
On foreign policy, Rouhani attracted voters with a promise to not only adhere to the seminal nuclear deal but to go beyond the agreement to reach broader understandings with the United States. Such understandings could yield the lifting of the remaining U.S. sanctions that make international firms hesitant to re-engage in Iran, but which would also entail compromises that the Supreme leader and IRGC are likely to thwart. A lifting of US terrorism-related sanctions would require Iran to sharply curtail its support for Lebanese Hezbollah and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria—requirements that the hardline Iranian establishment would not permit under almost any circumstances. Similarly, the lifting of US proliferation sanctions would require Iran to cease developing ballistic missiles—a reversal that Iran’s hardliners would almost certainly block. US approach to the Syrian crisis would determine US policy o for Iran.
Washington wants the Iranian president to reign in the Spiritual leader and take full control of important institutions like IRGC and judiciary, thereby crate tension with the Spiritual leader. Rouhani’s inability to change Iran’s key national security policies will likely ensure that the Trump administration continues to strengthen alliances with Iran’s regional adversaries. President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia this past weekend came with the signing of a major package of new U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including a Saudi purchase of the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile system designed to intercept Iranian missiles. Trump’s visit also included discussions of institutionalizing US-Arab alliances intended, in large part, to counter Iran’s regional influence.
Even though most Iranians have not yet experienced tangible economic benefits from sanctions relief, Iranian voters clearly turned away from Raisi’s candidacy in part for his potential to increase tensions with the international community and possibly trigger a re-imposition of those sanctions.
The election was seen by many as a verdict on Rouhani’s policy of opening up Iran to the world and his efforts to rebuild its stagnant economy. Rouhani swept into office four years ago on a promise to reduce Iran’s international isolation.
Friday poll was the first since he negotiated a historic deal with world powers in 2015 to curb the country’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. In the campaign trail, Rouhani sought to frame the vote as a choice between greater civil liberties and “extremism”, criticising the continued arrest of reformist leaders and activists. Raisi, for his part, accused Rouhani of mismanaging the economy and positioned himself as a defender of the poor and calling for a much tougher line with the West.
The economy that received setback due to sanctions form the western powers and allies remains the number one challenge for Rouhani, 68, who signed a nuclear deal between Iran, the USA and other countries in 2015. International sanctions were lifted as a result, but average Iranians say they do not feel the economic benefits in their daily lives. While oil exports have rebounded and inflation is back at single-digits, unemployment remains high, especially among the young people.
A vibrant economy alone could bring Iran closer to the western world. Rouhani, a moderate who agreed a deal with world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program, pledged to “remain true” to his promises. The decisive victory gives him a strong mandate to seek reforms and revive Iran’s ailing economy, analysts say. In his first remarks after winning the poll, Rouhani said: “Great people of Iran, you’re the winners of the election.” Rouhani’s victory is welcomed by Iranian reformists as well as the country’s opposition green movement.
President Rouhani has brought GDP growth back into the black, inflation into single-digits and trade deficit into a surplus. But expectations are high and Rouhani himself is to blame, having promised miracles once the sanctions were lifted. Rouhani will now have a bigger mandate to push through his reforms, to put an end to extremism, to build bridges with the outside world, to put the economy back on track.
Rouhani managed to strike an historic deal in 2015 with world powers over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, resolving a long-standing crisis with the West. International sanctions were lifted as a result, but average Iranians say they do not feel the economic benefits in their daily lives.
That growth came mostly from increased oil exports following the lifting of sanctions. Iran’s highest record in the past four decades has been creating 600,000 jobs a year. Iran’s current unemployment rate stands at 12.7%, up 1.7% over the past year. That puts the number of those with absolutely no employment at 3.3 million.
But when it comes to young people, one in every three of those aged 15-24 is jobless. In that age group, every other woman is unemployed. For those without a job, Qalibaf is also offering a 2.5m rial ($66) monthly unemployment benefit, a first in the 38 years since the Islamic Revolution. The price tag for this election promise alone is a staggering $2.6bn. Iran’s housing sector shrank 13% in the year to March 2017, while the country’s overall economy grew by almost 6.6%, estimates International Monetary Fund.
Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his two terms (2005-2013) started cash hand-outs when removing subsidies, offered low-interest loans for small businesses and launched massive projects of affordable housing for the poor. But when Ahmadinejad left office the economy was shrinking by 7% a year and inflation reached 40%. He blamed international sanctions. Economists blamed Ahmadinejad’s populist policies and his mismanagement of the economy.
Rouhani has brought inflation down from around 40 percent when he took over in 2013, but prices are still rising by over seven percent a year. Oil sales have rebounded since the nuclear deal took effect in January 2016, but growth in the rest of the economy has been limited, leaving unemployment at 12.5 percent overall – close to 30 percent for the young – and many more are under-employed or struggling to get by. “Rouhani now gets his second term, and will be able to continue the work that he started in his first four-year term trying to reform Iran,” Hull said. “And moving on, crucially, from the nuclear deal to try and bring much more economic progress to satisfy the people who have found themselves extremely disappointed with the very slow pace of change since that agreement was signed.”
In Iran’s unique and uneasy hybrid of democracy and theocracy, the president has significant power to shape government, although he is ultimately constrained by the supreme leader. Khamenei, a hardliner thought to have favored Raisi in the election and as a possible successor for his own job, generally steers clear of daily politics but controls powerful bodies from the judiciary to the Revolutionary Guards.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has veto power over all policies and ultimate control of the security forces, While Rouhani has been unable to secure the release of reformist leaders from house arrest. While the nuclear deal was at the forefront of the election, the campaign was dominated by the issues of poverty and unemployment.
Rouhani is also expected to face the same restrictions that prevented him from delivering substantial social change in his first term. Rouhani, during an “increasingly acrimonious election campaign, alienated a lot of Iran’s significant state institutions who may be in no mood to cooperate with him going forward”.
The Rouhani re-election offers the potential for the Trump government to incorporate some direct diplomacy with Iran into its overall strategy. While criticizing Iran’s policies extensively, in April the Trump administration certified Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, and it continued to waive U.S. sanctions under the agreement in May. During Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which began as Rouhani was declared the winner in Iran, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that, at some point, he expected to talk directly with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Such direct bilateral engagement could overcome decades of mutual hostility and put the relationship on a more peaceful and productive trajectory, offer a new opportunity for engagement between the two long-time adversaries, offering a new opportunity for engagement between the two long-time adversaries.