Iran on the bumpy road towards further opening

Iran on the bumpy road towards further opening

05/2017  | Reading time: 8 minutes

On May 19th incumbent President Hassan Rouhani has been once again elected to the Presidential position of the Islamic Republic of Iran. While the victory of the Pragmatic candidate has been celebrated in the international media, there are many challenges ahead for the Persian state to develop closer ties with the West.

Iran’s political system is one of the most relatively democratic one in the Middle East which was demonstrated well by the heated presidential election campaign of the last months. The most influential challenger of the current President was Ebrahim Raisi, a much more hard-line cleric and a close associate of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The messages of the two frontrunners were widely different, even though both of them are committed to the broad idea of the Islamic Republic born after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. President Rouhani was the champion of the opening-up policy to the Western powers, which has led to the signing of the nuclear agreement with the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany two years ago. The deal has lifted a significant part of the international community’s sanctions on Iran’s economy, which has seen the downfall of oil export and therefore state income in recent years. While oil production has picked up during the partial dismantling of the sanctions regime, the population, especially young university graduates have not seen a significant upturn in the country’s economic situation when it comes to the average citizen. Rouhani’s policy did have its effect in reality as inflation has been reduced almost to its fifth from its previous yearly rate of 40%, and Iran has returned to a robust overall GDP growth of more than 6% per year.

Incumbent and re-elected President Hassan Rouhani (on the left) at a campaign parade
Source: Shutterstock

The main challenger Ebrahim Raisi has agitated against the incumbent President’s policy, arguing exactly along the line that while Rouhani made concessions to the West, the population has not seen the economic benefits, he only damaged the state’s stature and “scientific progress”. On the other hand, Rouhani has basically asked for one more term to work on its broader strategic plan so that its positive effects will reach the masses of citizens, and not to turn back the clock by electing a closed-minded President. An interesting development was the introduction of further political and human rights into the incumbent President’s political message, which seem to have resonated well with the majority of 55 million voters of Iran and Rouhani has been re-elected with a wide margin, with 57% of the votes.

As for the prospects of Rouhani’s second term, we must be cautious when projecting a significant change in Iran’s foreign and security policy. The title of the President can be a misguiding term, as his position in fact is similar to a Prime Minister in Western Democratic countries - ultimate power is held by the Supreme Leader and not by the President. Therefore, even if Rouhani wishes to continue on his path towards further opening, inviting Western capital infusion into the weak Iranian economy and maybe introducing more civil rights, he will be countered at every step by the conservative elements of the political and security establishment, chiefly the Revolutionary Guard and the Supreme Leader. Iranian power politics is not only about ideology but also about hard money, as the Revolutionary Guard is the most significant economic force in the country. Rouhani’s previous and planned steps of reinvigorating the Persian state’s economy cuts deep into the pockets of the so-called guardians of the Islamic Revolution who rely on relative international isolation and fearmongering against the West (and the Sunni Arab states) to keep their various privileges. As for the second potential and probable limiting factor on Rouhani, the Supreme Leader, the election of the Pragmatic candidate might be relevant in terms of the eventual succession of the hard-liner Supreme Leader, who is 77 years old.

Iranian youth supporting Rouhani on the metro
Source: Shutterstock

Also one must note that Rouhani is not against the current foreign policy of Iran in terms of relying on the Shia-dominated government in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and the Lebanese Hezbollah to promote Iranian interest against the other three regional great powers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Maintaining and possibly even advancing Iran’s position in the regional power balance are the most important priority for any leaders in Tehran, may he be Pragmatic or Conservative. The Persian state is located in an unenviable geographic position squeezed between world powers and other populous and turbulent countries with Iran having a rapidly aging population. As such, every Iranian President must do the utmost to guarantee the sovereignty of the country through amassing as much power as they can, as long as they are able to, only respective strategies might differ. To conclude, one must be very cautious to attach too much importance to Rouhani’s victory in terms of the broader Iranian strategy in the Middle East and beyond, as the President is only one, and not even the most significant factor in shaping Iran’s path.


Opening pic by Shutterstock

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