Iranian Elections: The Ripening of a Revolution

Peace & security

A decisive victory for Hassan Rouhani: A nod toward the West, but above all, acknowledgement of a nation’s yearning.

Iranian voters have given incumbent President Hassan Rouhani a second four-year term, while simultaneously turning a cold shoulder to Iran’s hardline clerics in determinedly expressing their eagerness to continue to engage with the international community and seek a progressive future for their country.

As polling stations across Iran opened early Friday morning, voters were tasked not only with choosing the next president of the Islamic Republic, but also determining the country’s political and societal trajectory. The significance of this vote manifested itself in a turnout of over 70% of eligible voters.

Hassan Rouhani, the reformist, whose most noteworthy accomplishment during his first term was the signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement and the subsequent easing of international economic sanctions on Iran, won by 57.1%, cementing his progressive agenda for Iran. His rival candidate, Ebrahim Raeesi, a wealthy principlist cleric and former chief prosecutor, received 38%.

These figures bear testimony to the high levels of political involvement and to the unprecedentedly hostile run-up to the election. Rouhani had maintained his presumption of an Iran which is open to diplomatic discourse. As the promised fruits of the nuclear agreement have been slow to arrive, with unemployment high and the economy still lacking sizable foreign investments, Raeesi campaigned on a platform of adversity toward the West and promises of greater prosperity; a stance which secured support among Iran’s rural conservatives who feel left out of the reformist movement centering around the nation’s capital, Tehran.

By virtue of this rejection of populism, Hassan Rouhani stands to continue his reformist – unlike liberal – agenda. On a societal level, this will entail a lesser focus on religious norms and a further weakening of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Pragmatically, the revolutionary guards, an omnipresent sight during Ahmadinejad’s presidency will vanish further from the public realm, granting more liberties to Iran’s reformist populace.

On an economic level, change will come at a slow-pace, as the country with the 4th largest oil reserves relies on foreign investments, all of which depend on the development of regional and global, mainly US-centered politics. Admittedly, the promised economic turnaround is not quite around the corner. But pursuing better ties with the international community and seizing on foreign trade and investment opportunities are certainly a more auspicious path, than that of isolationist hardline rhetoric.

The most consequential dimension of this outcome materializes, not so much on a foreign policy level, but rather on a political one. Iran’s openness toward the West and willingness to engage in diplomacy will remain unchanged. Withal, a paradigm shift when it comes to Iranian politics and the future of the Islamic Revolution is in the making and this election, unmistakably, proved its existence.

Iran holds somewhat democratic elections, in which the six candidates who were approved to run, can be freely elected. The same applies to the parliament and Assembly of Experts, the body tasked with appointing the Supreme Leader of Iran. These democratic elements of the post-revolutionary Iranian state are counterbalanced by the country’s theocratic and totalitarian institutions, such as the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and the IRGC. The first step of the paradigm shift happened in February 2016, when elections of the General Assembly of Experts resulted in an unprecedented majority of reformist seats. Friday’s elections embed a nation’s desire to evolve with – not revolt against – its leaders.

The establishment ruling over the people of Iran are arriving at the realization, that their powers rest in the hands of a people that will only endure so much before it rises in dissent. This recognition, though self-serving, bears with it the unique opportunity to gradually and peacefully transform the political landscape and thus the underlying system. Every election which empowers the people to voice their demands, serves as a vehicle for incremental change.

Never, since the Revolution, a series of electoral outcomes and political shifts have been as crucial as the ones being witnessed today. The country’s future path will ultimately be determined by the succession of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; however, it would be wise for the theocracy’s forces to honor their constituents’ yearnings. For even George Orwell recognized that «one does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution», hence it is incumbent upon the revolutionaries, to evolve in concert with the society they claim to liberate.