Iranians re-elected President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday with approximately 54% of the vote, leaving Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-line cleric, with just 38% of the vote, according to Reuters. While Rouhani’s win reflects a positive trajectory for Iranians seeking democracy, Western governments and media sources should be careful when describing him as a reformist. In practice, Rouhani’s reelection may mean a more open trajectory for Iran’s economy, but the difference between Rouhani and Raisi when it comes to the prospects for a more open political system is so small as to be negligible. Here are the three key takeaways for understanding Iran’s presidential election:
- Iranians chose between a tenured political insider who pushed for reform, and a younger hard- line cleric who could be Iran’s next Supreme Leader.
Following the withdrawal of other hard-line candidates and their subsequent support of Raisi, the election came down to Rouhani and Raisi, two opposing figures with opposing paths for Iran’s future. Rouhani’s 2013 campaign promise of ending the nuclear crisis and internationally imposed sanctions made him the leader of Iran’s pragmatist camp, where economic re- engagement and diplomatic processes are believed to be Iran’s best chance at alleviating economic problems. Raisi, on the other hand, is not only notable for his populist, isolationist, and hard-line positions, but because he’s also a viable option to succeed 72 year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the Supreme Leader.
To give readers a sense of Raisi as a politician, he was advised by Holocaust-denying former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and is a protege of the Supreme Leader. Raisi served in Iran’s judiciary, one of the most powerful institutions in its Islamic governmental system, where he is known for approving the execution of thousands of political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Since then, Raisi was voted to the Majles-e Khobregan (Assembly of Experts) in 2006, the 88-member governing body of Islamic jurists that chooses the next Supreme Leader. Raisi is also considered to be deeply embedded in Iran’s so-called “deep state”–he served on the board of Setad, the $95 billion holding company under the Supreme Leader’s control that has interests in Iran’s pharma, real estate, telecommunications, and energy sectors.
He is highly regarded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an army loyal only to the Supreme Leader that has successfully coup-proofed the regime while having a stake in almost every industrial, commercial, and black-market enterprise in Iran. All of these qualifications, if they can be called that, have made Raisi a rising Islamic jurist whose life-long obedience to both Khomenei and Khamenei make him a strong candidate to succeed them.
Raisi campaigned on populist and Islamic policies, and attacked Rouhani’s promises of economic stimulus following the lifting of economic sanctions as a ploy for Iran’s 1%. Experts note that Raisi’s rise in the polls, coupled with hard-line support, would have made it almost impossible to know if his win was rigged. Despite their clear political differences, both Rouhani and Raisi are creatures of post-revolutionary Iran’s bureaucratic framework, and have both spent their life’s work devoted to the Supreme Leader.
- While Western observers should celebrate Rouhani’s win, they should not forget that Iran is undemocratic.
The most important thing to keep in mind about Iran’s complex political system is that it’s comprised of two parts: elected and unelected institutions. While Iranians have elected their presidents and members of the Majles (elected institutions) every four years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the candidates in every election go through a vetting process through the Shora-ye Negahban-e (Guardian Council, an unelected institution), an appointed body of 12 Islamic jurists.
The Supreme Leader (an unelected position) serves for life, and is chosen through the Majles-e Khobregan (Assembly of Experts). He has the final word on all domestic, military, economic, and foreign policy decisions.
By now, it should be clear that the vetting processes and unelected institutions within Iran’s government make Iran undemocratic. It is crucial to note that even when a candidate makes it through the strict vetting process, and wins the popular vote, the Supreme Leader can meddle with the election result. The most recent and notable instance was the rigged re-election of President Ahmadinejad in 2009, which led to mass protests known as the Green Movement, the most significant, united, and visible protest since the fall of the Shah. Many experts view the Green Movement as the precursor to the Arab Uprisings in 2011, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets demanding democracy and equal rights across the Middle East.
- A record number of Iranians came out to vote.
While one might assume that Iran’s undemocratic Islamic theocracy would leave its citizens feeling disenfranchised, the reality is quite the opposite. Iranians are ferociously engaged and passionate when it comes to elections. Iranians lined up starting as early as 6 a.m. to vote. Even the Supreme Leader cast his vote at precisely 8 a.m. sharp, with voting hours extended five hours because of the huge turnout. Many Iranians took to social media in the days leading up to the vote, and showed support for their candidate. With the median age of 23 in a country of 80 million, and the rise of social media use, voter turnout in Iran’s youth play a crucial role now, and will continue to do so in the future.
For citizens who seek a free, fair, and democratic Iran, Rouhani’s win reaffirms a widespread desire for reform. For Western observers, Rouhani’s win is a step in the right direction– but we should be cautioned to call him a reformist. By labeling Rouhani in those terms, one would be denying the political reality Iranians deal with on a daily basis, where any misstep, whether with speech, dress, religious ideology, or political affiliation will land you in jail. Rouhani’s commitment to negotiating, implementing, and preserving the Iran nuclear deal doesn’t make him a moderate; it makes him a pragmatist–similar to how Hamas’ declaration that it no longer seeks the death and destruction of all Jews doesn’t reflect its moderate nature but rather its pragmatism in response to economic crisis and geopolitical shifts. Rouhani was willing to utilize his political capital on the Iran deal because of crippling sanctions, and Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, only agreed to the Iran deal because Iran’s survival was at stake.
Going forward, the P5+1 and its allies should continue to root for Iran’s aspiring liberal democrats, but be wary of Iran’s true intentions; preserving and furthering their national interest in the best way they see fit.