Rouhani victory sets the scene for future battles between Iran’s competing factions

Published in GSN, 25 May 2017

Hassan Rouhani’s landslide victory in the presidential election on 19 May – when he won 57% of the vote, removing any need for a second round – presents the second term head of government and the wider political establishment with short- and long-term challenges that will be difficult to resolve. At the most basic level, the result was a retort to the hardline conservative/principalist agenda, which has been roundly rejected by the population, allowing Rouhani to come first in 23 of the Islamic Republic’s 31 provinces.

Reformists also won handsomely in local elections also held on 19 May. Their capture of all 21 seats on the Tehran council ended 15 years of conservative control of the capital. Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, son of the pragmatic late ex-president Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (GSN 1,029/3), received the largest number of votes.

The election represents a defeat for Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as much as it was for runner-up Seyyed Razavi Ebrahim Raeisi. While the supreme leader did not explicitly endorse any individual candidate, his preference for bonyad chief Raeisi was clear enough. The decision by Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf to retire from the race before polling day gave Raeisi a clear run-in without any serious hardline challenger (GSN 1,036/6). Even so, he polled only 38% of the vote, leaving him far behind Rouhani.

Raeisi is sometimes tipped as a potential future rahbar, despite not holding the highest clerical rank of ayatollah (a handicap Khamenei also overcame earlier in his career). He will now have to decide whether to still seek high office. He has a strong foundation (literally) to build on, with the wealth of the Astan Quds charity organisation that he runs; but it may be hard for the foreseeable future to claim any popular demand to take a prominent political role.

The conservatives’ setback in the Tehran council elections also raises questions about Ghalibaf’s future. Tehran mayor since 2005, Ghalibaf (unlike his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) has proved unable to convert this high-profile position into a successful presidential run, having tried and failed three times. The council, which elects the mayor, will now be run by reformists, and he will need to find a new role. Ghalibaf may be taken closer into the rahbar’s orbit or promoted to a post on the Expediency Council.

Now for the hard part

Despite his resounding victory, Rouhani won’t necessarily have it easy over the next four years. The international mood is darker still following US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Throughout the trip, Trump and his officials adopted a notably hostile tone on Iran, closely aligned to the position taken by Saudi and Israeli leaders. A global narrative in which the United States places Iran at the centre of its preoccupations will make it harder for Rouhani to convince investors that the time is right to invest in Iran – which is a critical ingredient for reviving the economy.

Conservative elements will be back to challenge the centrist president before long. They anyway maintain a grip on many levers of power from which it is impossible to dislodge them. Rouhani’s strong criticism of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) during the campaign marked a new stage in public debate; it will not have done much to endear him to Khamenei, whose support he needs for any significant reforms, or powerful players like the IRGC’s elite Quds Force commander Major General Qassim Soleimani (GSN 1,024/14). While key questions remain to be resolved about Iranian politics in the period to 2021, starting with Khamenei’s future, a conservative/principalist president could be expected early in the next decade if the electoral balance follows the established pattern. The architect of Iran’s regional military penetration, Soleimani’s name is high on many people’s lists to fulfil that role. Meanwhile, a substantial economic player, as well as driver of Iran’s praetorian ambitions, the IRGC could make life difficult for Rouhani both inside the country and beyond its borders, where it can have a disruptive influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and possibly other countries.

Rouhani’s popular mandate is not necessarily that useful if Khamenei decides to be obstructive. The 77-year old supreme leader is reputed to suffer from ill health but still holds the reins of power. Second-term presidents in Iran have a tendency to fall out with the rahbar even when they are from the same faction – as evidenced by the discord between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad following the latter’s disputed re-election in 2009 – so Rouhani (not himself a radical by nature) will have to play a subtle game.

Rouhani could do well to take advantage of what may be a brief honeymoon to push ahead with domestic reforms, from finally introducing the much-vaunted new petroleum contract – existing minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh is said to have been paralysed by doubts over enacting change in the run-up to the elections – to clamping down on corruption, which would necessarily target establishment figures if an anti-graft campaign is to be convincing. Vested interests will have to be challenged if the economy is to become more efficient, investment encouraged and the trends towards high rates of unemployment be reversed.

Rouhani is likely to disappoint on some or all of these critical issues. His appetite for tackling corruption is unclear and he has set what looks like an unreachable target of dismantling the remaining international sanctions, at a time when the US is likely to impose more sanctions aimed at Iran’s ballistic missile programme. The tit-for-tat approach saw Iran place sanctions on nine US companies in mid-May, in response to the State Department’s latest round of restrictions.

There is the potential to make some gains on the regional stage, notwithstanding the hostility emanating from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. If Rouhani can build on the tentative steps towards reconciliation with the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states – led by Kuwait and Oman – there is a chance that things might improve and tensions reduce (GSN 1,032/15). However, the chances of meaningful progress depends on movement towards a resolution of the conflicts in Syria, where Iran plays a vital role in propping up President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, and in Yemen, where Tehran plays a far smaller role in supporting the Houthis, despite the hyperbolic claims of Saudi and US officials.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s comments following Rouhani’s victory focused on “Iran’s network of terrorism” and its “destabilising forces” in the region. Coming from one of the Trump administration’s pragmatists, this suggest there is little appetite in the White House for meaningful engagement with Tehran, barring a spectacular change of course. For Rouhani, the need to carefully handle his rivals and critics at home and abroad will be even more pronounced in his second term than it was in his first and the heady days of the nuclear deal.