Iranian elections: a voice for change
A defeat for Rouhani would be a serious setback for regional stability
The keen interest manifest in Europe in what are seen as era-defining presidential elections in France and the election looming in Germany is perhaps eclipsing another that could have as much effect on global politics. And is also in essence a contest between insularity and internationalism – Iran’s election today.
The election pits reformist President Hassan Rouhani against, among others, Ebrahim Raisi, a favorite of the hard-line clerical establishment which still pulls the political strings and vets the candidates in the Islamic Republic. Rouhani’s singular achievement since election in 2013 is the deal with the west constraining Iran’s nuclear programme, accomplished in the face of considerable opposition from conservatives and the subject of sceptical scorn from US president Donald Trump.
The hope of the reformists had been that the deal would open up an economy hobbled by international sanctions. And it has done so, but only to a limited extent. Many Iranians still find it difficult to make ends meet and officially unemployment is put at eight million – in practice it is far higher.
There is more money around, an improvement in some social rights, access to foreign TV and internet for most, and a thaw of sorts in the more austere aspects of fundamentalist Islamist rule. But this is no western democracy and the press, for one, remains strictly controlled.
Rouhani’s defeat at this time of the country’s emergence from purdah would be a serious setback for regional stability, confirming the malign characterisations of Iran by the likes of Trump, the Saudis and Israelis as an incorrigible, hostile power. US secretary of defence Jim Mattis warned recently that: “everywhere you look if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran”. And Tehran’s support for Assad in Syria and involvement with Shia forces in Lebanon and Yemen contribute to that view.
By the weekend we should know, however, if the tide of extreme nationalism and populism that may now be ebbing in Europe will also continue to flood out in Iran.