Re-elected Rohani faces limits in country where ‘autocracy is evergreen’
Dubai - By re-electing President Hassan Rohani, Iranians yearning for more freedom at home and less isolation abroad are throwing down a challenge to the conservative clergy that still holds ultimate sway.
State television congratulated Rohani on his victory. The architect of Iran’s still-fragile detente with the West, he led with 58.6% of the vote, compared with 39.8% for his main challenger, hard-line judge Ebrahim Raeisi, according to near-complete results broadcast the day after the May 19 election.
Although the powers of the elected president are limited by those of unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who outranks him, the scale of Rohani’s victory gives the pro-reform camp a strong mandate.
Raeisi was a protégé of Khamenei, tipped in Iranian media as a potential successor for the 77-year-old supreme leader who has been in power since 1989.
The re-election is likely to safeguard the nuclear agreement Rohani’s government reached with global powers in 2015, under which most international economic sanctions have been lifted in return for Iran curbing its nuclear programme.
It also delivers a setback to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the powerful security force that controls a vast industrial empire in Iran. The IRGC had thrown its support behind Raeisi to safeguard its interests.
Rohani, 68, still faces the same restrictions on his ability to transform Iran that prevented him from delivering substantial social change in his first term and thwarted reform efforts by one of his predecessors, Mohammad Khatami.
The supreme leader has veto power over all policies and ultimate control of the security forces. Rohani has been unable to secure the release of reformist leaders from house arrest and media are barred from publishing the words or images of his reformist predecessor Khatami.
“The last two decades of presidential elections have been short days of euphoria followed by long years of disillusionment,” said Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who focuses on Iran.
“Democracy in Iran is allowed to bloom only a few days every four years, while autocracy is evergreen.”
The re-elected president will have to navigate a tricky relationship with Washington, which appears at best ambivalent about the nuclear accord signed by former US President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump, Obama’s successor, has repeatedly described it as “one of the worst deals ever signed,” although his administration has re-authorised waivers from sanctions.
The Saudis, who are alarmed by Iran’s regional ambitions, deplore the nuclear deal.
Rohani, known for decades as a mild-mannered member of the establishment, campaigned as an ardent reformist to stir up the passions of young, urban voters yearning for change. He crossed traditional rhetorical boundaries, openly attacking the human rights record of the security forces and the judiciary.
During one rally, he referred to hardliners as “those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut.” In a pre-election debate, he accused Raeisi of seeking to “abuse religion for power.”
The big turnout — estimated at 70% of eligible votes — appeared to have favoured Rohani, whose backers’ main concern had been apathy among reformist-leaning voters disappointed with the slow pace of change.
Many voters were particularly determined to block the rise of Raeisi, one of four judges who sentenced thousands of political prisoners to death in the 1980s, regarded by reformers as a symbol of the security state at its most fearsome.
“The wide mobilisation of the hard-line groups and the real prospect of Raeisi winning scared many people into coming out to vote,” said Nasser, a 52-year-old journalist.
“We had a bet among friends and I said Raeisi would win and I think that encouraged a few of my friends who might not have voted to come out and vote.”
The election was important “for Iran’s future role in the region and the world,” Rohani said Friday after voting.
Raeisi, 56, had accused Rohani of mismanaging the economy, travelling to poor areas and staging rallies in which he promised additional welfare benefits and jobs.
Despite the removal of nuclear-related sanctions in 2016, lingering unilateral US sanctions that target Iran’s record on human rights and terrorism have kept foreign companies wary of investing, limiting the economic benefits.