Iran’s Guardian Council confirmed the reelection of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani on 30 May. Elections were held on 10 May, with Rouhani receiving 57% of the vote, beating the conservative Ebrahim Raisi – the ayatollah’s pick – who received 38.5%.
The contentious campaign period, which included extraordinary remarks by Rouhani as well as criticism by Ayatollah Khamenei, indicate that ultra-conservative factions remain strongly opposed to Rouhani’s reelection, as well as the policies he presents, the most important of which is the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Hardliners called for an investigation following the polls, citing alleged voting irregularities, however, this tactic is now moot following the Guardian Council decision on 30 May. Despite Rouhani’s popular mandate, it is unclear whether the 2nd term win will allow greater room for manoeuvre and reform: ultra-conservative elements are expected to significantly increase their opposition to Ruhani and his reform policies.
Powerful factional rivalries are emerging as groups seek placement ahead of succession negotiations which will follow the death of ailing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, now 77. The electoral win marks an important yet incipient step in the internal balance of power against hardline influence within the state, and society at large. However, structural factors, namely the entrenched power of the revolutionary elite, including the subjection of policy changes to the Supreme Leader for approval, who takes into consideration the vested interests of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), will limit Rouhani’s freedom of movement in actualising much-needed reform.
Thorough economic and political patronage networks underpin the regime, the most powerful organs of which include the office of the Supreme Leader, the executive council and the IRGC, whose business interests control an estimated 30% of the overall economy. Rouhani essentially owes his position to this regime; however, his apparent liberal bent is a hedged bet on the long-term outlook for the country, which includes a gradual opening up of Iranian society. The IRGC fear that liberalisation and foreign investments will threaten their vested commercial and political interests, built out of and in the isolation of the post-1979 Islamic Republic. Rouhani will retain considerable political influence in the meantime, due to his centrist coalition’s majority in parliament, and is expected to primarily pursue economic liberalisation as a means to leverage political and social reforms, supported by a grassroots majority that indicated in the recent polls that the revolutionary era has outlived its usefulness.
This ground level change rooted in Iran’s youthful demography threatens the revolutionary-conservative consensus but is also driving a gradual liberalisation of the political sphere, as evidenced by the comprehensive victory of reformist candidates during city council elections, including in Tehran and in Mashhad – Raisi’s hometown. In the long run, the IRGC is expected to retain the upper hand due to its increasing institutional penetration, allied with hardline conservative factions.
Furthermore, the election of Donald Trump, along with inflammatory remarks against the Islamic Republic will give the hardliners the ammunition needed to take aim at Rouhani, and the nuclear deal which promised greater economic rewards through the lifting of investment barring sanctions, in exchange for limitations on Iran’s nuclear program – rewards which have thus far been disappointing. The IRGC have returned Trump’s bellicose remarks by engaging in provocative actions in recent months. This includes both ballistic missile tests which violate UN resolutions, and the harassment of maritime vessels in the Persian Gulf. These actions compromise the detente with the West advocated by Rouhani, which may undermine the president and his reform agenda.