Iranians re-elected President Hassan Rouhani this past month in a landslide, as he defeated his nearest challenger, hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, by nearly 19 percentage points. (57.1% to 38.3%)
Many expected a closer election than in 2013, where Rouhani won with 50.71% of the vote against a bitterly divided handful of hardliner candidates, because of the unified hardline coalition behind Raisi. However, Iran’s cities, especially the sprawling behemoth of Tehran turned out in massive numbers for Rouhani, and even hardliner strongholds like Raszavi Khorasan Province only narrowly tilted in favor of Raisi.
Reform-minded Iranians poured into streets across the country to celebrate. Just as his campaign slogan said, Rouhani would return to work, Again For Iran, until 2021.
Landslide victories for moderate or reformist candidates in modern Iran are not unheard of. Mohammad Khatami, a politician not unlike Rouhani, won even larger victories in the 1997 and 2001 Presidential elections (69% and 77% respectively), but struggled to gain real traction in pursuing similar goals to Rouhani. While he was followed by Holocaust denying hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ahmadinejad, however, won his victories through a runoff in 2005 against a demoralized and divided moderate/reformist camp and a lukewarm candidate in Akbar Rasfanjani, and his re-election in 2009 led to massive protests across the country amid a strong suspicion the election was rigged in his favor.
Iran is run by an odd hybrid government where, as strange as it may sound, both authoritarianism and democracy play a part. Iranians vote in local, parliamentary, and presidential elections as well as elections to the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the Supreme Leader. How much these votes count, however, depends largely on the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Khamenei is coming up on his 28th year in the office, and his relation to the government often determines how much elected officials can pursue their policy goals. Candidates are also strictly vetted by the Guardian Council, which has a habit of disqualifying many reformists.
Khamenei is a hardliner, but he has allowed President Rouhani space to carry out his policy platform to some success. He is coming up on his 78th birthday and rumors claim he may have prostate cancer, though this is not known for sure. While the Iranian government has kept most speculation about his replacement quiet, Raisi was considered a candidate as was Akbar Rafsanjani. However, Raisi was routed by Rouhani in the presidential election last month, and Rafsanjani died earlier this year.
There is a possibility Khamenei will die during Rouhani’s second term, ushering in a new era for Iran’s Islamic Republic. The Assembly of Experts, which will elect his successor, has a considerable chunk of reformist representatives, including President Rouhani.
Iran is unlikely to move away from the Islamic Republic system entirely under Rouhani, but if a new Supreme Leader is chosen, the country may be set on a new path.
When Mohammad Khatami was elected in a landslide in 1997, some western media sources dubbed him Ayatollah Gorbachov, a nod to the Soviet reformer who eventually became the last leader of the communist empire. Gorbachov was a communist, but he realized things had to change to get the USSR moving again from its stalled and bloated situation in the early to mid-1980s. His reforms, while met with praise, spun out of control and eventually led to the end of the Soviet Union. Khatami made some reforms while President of Iran, but unlike Gorbachov, his reforms did not bring about the demise of the Islamic Republic. In fact, Khatami was relatively ineffective and the political climate when he left office swept a particularly abrasive hardliner to the presidency in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
While technically not in a reformist political party, President Rouhani has slowly but surely become bolder in his criticism regarding government institutions such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Guardian Council. He has slowly but surely worked to re-integrate Iran from its status as a pariah under Ahmadinejad. The economy is growing. Inflation has grinded to a near halt, and the rial, while still not worth much, has at least stopped hurtling towards total worthlessness.
Rouhani continues a trend of Iranian presidents in the Islamic Republic always winning re-election. Every single elected president in Iran since 1979 has managed to win a second term.
Iranians are worried about the bellicose rhetoric coming from their old foe the United States, particularly from President Trump, who has dismissed the nuclear deal as “the worst deal ever”. Despite this, Trump has not delved into detail about why the deal is so bad, nor has Washington taken any concrete steps to dismantle it.
Rouhani, unlike Gorbachov, was able to at the very least stabilize the Iranian economy and put it on a positive path, and the country seems to be very slowly moving away from its most draconian authoritarianism. Rouhani, like Gorbachov, does not seek to destroy the institution he works in (Iran’s Islamic Republic), but he seems to realize the importance of and need for reform in his country.
Another reformer one could compare Rouhani to is South African President F.W. De Klerk, who set his country on the path towards multiracial democracy after nearly 50 years of apartheid, a venomous and oppressive system of segregation where the overwhelming majority of black South Africans were shunted away from the prosperity enjoyed by the white minority.
De Klerk only served one term as President, from 1989 to 1994, as his National Party was overwhelmingly defeated in the 1994 elections by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. His legacy of overseeing a peaceful transition away from apartheid tarnished somewhat since 1994 when he went before the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and seemed to deny some of the atrocities committed under the segregationist government, but there is no denying he played an important role in shaping South Africa into the country it is today.
Because De Klerk oversaw a massive transformation which both came as a surprise and completely changed South Africa in a mere five years and then was voted out of power, perhaps he’s not the best politician to compare to Hassan Rouhani, who has tinkered here and there but largely worked within the boundaries.
Deng Xiaoping is another leader one could compare Iran’s President to. Deng, after emerging as China’s Paramount Leader in 1978, managed to bring the country towards a limited market economy and greatly increased the Chinese economy’s abilities, paving the way for the powerhouse we know today. Under Deng, Mao Zedong was also demoted from the glorious Chairman to “Seven parts good, three parts bad”, as the staggering hardship endured by the Chinese people during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were acknowledged to some extent. Yet Deng was still the one to give the order to the People’s Liberation Army to clear Tiananmen Square by force on June 4th, 1989. Today, China, while still claiming to follow communism, is more authoritarian socialist or an authoritarian mixed economy. Likewise, just as Deng ordered his troops to clear pro-democracy protestors, executions in Iran under President Rouhani have risen considerably.
Rouhani has another four years in office, and assuming the Iranian economy continues to reap the benefits of sanctions relief and diplomatic inroads continue, the country may continue down his path. Democratic institutions have the possibility of strengthening, the theocratic elements of the country may move farther back. Make no mistake, Hassan Rouhani has the chance to be a pivotal leader for his country.