Iran election: Hassan Rouhani re-elected president

Reformist candidate delivers defiant challenge to his hardline opponents after the vote

 

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani pledged on Saturday to open Iran up to the world and deliver freedoms its people have yearned for, in a defiant challenge to his hardline opponents after he was decisively re-elected for a second term.

Rouhani, long known as a cautious and mild-mannered establishment insider, reinvented himself as a bold champion of reform during the election campaign, a process which culminated in Friday’s election, in which he won more than 57 per cent of the vote.

His main challenger, hardline judge Ebrahim Raisi, received 38 per cent.

In his first televised speech after the result, Mr Rouhani appeared to openly defy conservative judges by praising the spiritual leader of Iran’s reform camp, former president Mohammed Khatami.

It was a remarkable challenge to the Shia Muslim religious judicial authorities, who have blacklisted Khatami from public life for his support for other reformists under house arrest.

A court has also banned quoting or naming Khatami on air.

“Our nation’s message in the election was clear: Iran’s nation chose the path of interaction with the world, away from violence and extremism,” Mr Rouhani said.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, whose country has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980, said he hoped Rouhani would use his second term to end Tehran’s ballistic missile programme and what he called its network of terrorism.

Iran denies any involvement in terrorism and says its missile programme, which US president Donald Trump recently targeted with new sanctions, is purely for defence purposes.

Although the powers of the elected president are limited by those of unelected supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who outranks him, the scale of Mr Rouhani’s victory gives the pro-reform camp its strongest mandate in at least 12 years to seek the sort of change that hardliners have thwarted for decades.

Mr Rouhani’s opponent Raisi, a protege of Khamenei, had united Iran’s conservative faction and had been tipped as a potential successor to the 77-year-old supreme leader. His defeat leaves the conservatives without an obvious flag-bearer.

Rouhani’s re-election is likely to safeguard the nuclear agreement his government reached with global powers in 2015, under which most international sanctions have been lifted in return for Iran curbing its nuclear programme.

And it delivers a setback to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the powerful security force which controls a vast industrial empire in Iran. They had thrown their support behind Raisi to safeguard their interests.

Celebrations

Thousands of people gathered in central Tehran to celebrate Mr Rouhani’s victory.

Videos on social media showed young people clapping and chanting: “We love you Hassan Rouhani, we support you.”

Some youngsters wore wristbands in violet, the colour of Mr Rouhani’s campaign.

Others wore green, representing the reformist movement crushed by security forces after a 2009 election, and whose leaders have been under house arrest since 2011.

During campaigning, Mr Rouhani promised to seek their release if re-elected with a stronger mandate.

“We won. We’ve done what we should have for our country. Now it’s Rouhani’s turn to keep his promises,” said coffee-shop owner Arash Geranmayeh (29), speaking by telephone from Tehran.

Videos from the cities of Kermanshah, Tabriz and the holy city of Mashhad showed hundreds of people in the streets, cheering and dancing.

Rouhani (68) faces the same limits on his power that prevented him from delivering social change in his first term, and that thwarted Khatami, who failed to deliver on a reform agenda while president from 1997-2005.

However, by publicly thanking “my dear brother, Mohammed Khatami” in his victory speech, Mr Rouhani seemed to take up the former president’s mantle.

Many experts are sceptical that a president can change much in Iran, as long as the supreme leader has veto power over all policies and control over the security forces.

“The last two decades of presidential elections have been short days of euphoria followed by long years of disillusionment,” said Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, who focuses on Iran.

“Democracy in Iran is allowed to bloom only a few days every four years, while autocracy is evergreen.”

The re-elected president will also have to navigate a tricky relationship with Washington, as the current US administration appears ambivalent at best about the nuclear accord agreed by former president Barack Obama.

Mr Trump has repeatedly described it as “one of the worst deals ever signed”, although his administration re-authorised waivers from sanctions this week.

Mr Trump arrived on Saturday in Saudi Arabia, his first stop on his first trip abroad as president.

The Saudis are Iran’s biggest enemies in the region and are expected to push hard for Mr Trump to turn his back on the nuclear deal.

Reinvention

Mr Rouhani’s reinvention as an ardent reformist on the campaign trail helped stir the passion of young, urban voters yearning for change.

At times he broke rhetorical taboos, attacking the human rights record of the security forces and the judiciary.

During one rally he referred to hardliners as “those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut”.

In a debate last week, he accused Mr Raisi of seeking to “abuse religion for power“.

The language at the debate earned a rare public rebuke from Khamenei, who called it “unworthy”.

The contentiousness of the campaign could make it more difficult for Mr Rouhani to secure the consent of hardliners to carry out his agenda, said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies programme at Stanford University.

“Rouhani upped the ante in the past 10 days in the rhetoric that he used. Clearly, it’s going to be difficult to back down on some of this stuff.”

Among the congratulatory messages sent to Mr Rouhani by world leaders, Iran’s battlefield ally Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said he looked forward to co-operating “to strengthen the security and stability of both countries, the region and the world”.

The biggest prize for Mr Rouhani’s supporters is the potential to set Iran’s course for decades by influencing the choice of Khamenei’s successor.

A Raisi victory would have probably ensured that the next supreme leader was also a hardliner.

Mr Rouhani’s win gives reformists a chance to build clout in the body that chooses the leader, the Assembly of Experts, where neither reformists nor conservatives dominate.

Khamenei praised Iranians for their big turnout in the election, after voters queued up for hours to cast their ballots.

The strong turnout of about 73 per cent of eligible voters appeared to have favoured Mr Rouhani, whose backers’ main concern had been apathy among reformists disappointed with the slow pace of change.

Many voters said they came out to block the rise of Raisi, one of four judges who sentenced thousands of political prisoners to death in the 1980s, and who is regarded by reformers as a symbol of the security state at its most fearsome.

“The wide mobilisation of the hardline groups and the real prospect of Raisi winning scared many people into coming out to vote,” said Nasser, a 52-year-old journalist.

“We had a bet among friends, and I said Raisi would win and I think that encouraged a few of my friends who might not have voted to come out and vote.“

Reuters