In a 75% turnout, Iran’s voters went to the polls on May 19 and reelected President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani received 57% of the vote. Ebrahim Raisi, who garnered 38% of the vote, was the hardline candidate favored by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani won despite the fact that he failed to deliver on the bulk of his promised human rights improvements during his first term. Iran’s voters are said to have sent a message of moderation to the Supreme Leader, they want Rouhani to keep improving the economy and Iran’s relations with the rest of the world. Given the limited ballot choices, it is clear that they voted for the candidate most likely to support economic and social progress.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has a population of 82.8 million and is 73% urban. A high percentage of the population is under 30. It is a theocratic republic in which the clerics hold ultimate political power. The Shia branch of Islam is the religion of over 90% of the population. Under Iran’s highly skewed political system, there is no set guarantee that elections will be fair or free. The supreme leader is above the government, he has the final say on many matters and on all major foreign policy decisions.
Iran is the region’s second largest economy after Saudi Arabia. The economy relies on oil and gas exports, the government owns hundreds of state-owned companies. Economic problems include inflation, price controls, subsidies and non-performing loans. The powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a military and internal security force, controls a sizable part of the economy.
Iran’s doctrinaire hardliners worry about the loss of influence, the corrosive influx of Western values and foreign economic competition. In regional affairs, they seeks to expand Iran’s sphere of influence by the use of Shiite proxies. An enemy of Israel, Iran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As a rival of Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf States, Iran backs the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Along with Russia, it supports the Assad regime in Syria and is deeply involved with the Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran also lends support to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Although he was elected as a reformist, President Rouhani has good hardline credentials. He was the deputy commander of the army during the Iran-Iraq war and the secretary of Iran’s security council for 16 years before being elected president. Given the political climate in Iran, the pace of Rouhani’s internal reforms and outreach to the world will continue to be slow. He knows that one of the keys to his goal of economic expansion is the lessening of regional tensions. Facing internal opposition, it remains to be seen how far he is willing or able to push in that direction. So far, Iran appears to be living up to the terms of nuclear agreement negotiated with the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China and Germany during the Obama administration.
Prior to the revolution in 1979, the prospects for Iran’s economy were highly rated. If he can manage to control the political difficulties, President Rouhani could take advantage of the country’s semi-dormant economic legacy during his second term.