Rouhani has his task cut out

Rouhani has his task cut out

Iran President Hassan Rouhani emerged as the victor in the May 19 presidential election, bagging 57% of the vote. The turnout was impressive – more than 70% of the voters, or some 41 million people, cast their ballots.

The moderate incumbent’s win against Ibrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric who was seen as the candidate of the conservative establishment and got 38.5% of the votes, is a major psychological boost for those in favour of reforms in the Islamic Republic.

Raisi managed to get an unexpected 14 million votes. This can be attributed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s implicit backing, and Raisi’s outreach to Iran’s conservative poor, with promises of economic upliftment.

As Rouhani embarks on his social and economic reform agenda, he will have to remain cognisant of the fact that there still exist in Iran a strong conservative base that clings on to the ideals of the 1979 revolution that toppled the regime of the Shah.

Iran is not a democracy in the Western, or even Indian, sense of the word. It has been described as an “undemocratic democracy”. While it indeed enjoys vibrant electoral politics, and the elected president does have some real powers, there are other unelected people and institutions he has to share this power with. The foremost among which is Khamenei. As his title suggests, he is the Supreme Leader of the country, and has the final say on all matters of real significance, such as defence and foreign policy.

Then there is the defence establishment, key among which is the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC). This institution has sometimes been described as a state within a state, with good reason. The military prowess of the IRGC makes it more formidable than Iran’s regular army, and the IRGC reports directly to the Supreme Leader, not the president. In fact, the Iranian system is unique in that the executive branch does not control the armed forces.

The clerical establishment, represented by the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council, makes up another lever of power in addition to the influential merchant class, especially the bazaar traders of Tehran.

Despite the fact that their apparently preferred candidate – Raisi – did not win, the Islamic establishment in Iran, represented by Khamenei, will view the 2017 election as a victory of sorts. This is because they can portray the high voter turnout as evidence of the Iranian masses’ intrinsic approval of the system that was established after the 1979 revolution. Add to this the fact that Raisi managed a respectable 38.5% of the vote. This will enable him, and by extension the conservatives, to form a strong opposition.

Stagnant economy

Rouhani’s voters primarily seek an improvement in their economic and social conditions. There is no dearth of well-educated and qualified people in the country. Iranians – a highly cultured people with a rich history – value education. And Iran’s education system, especially its technical universities, is sophisticated, and churns out skilled graduates. However, the stagnant economy means that Iran is unable to provide quality employment for these graduates.

Rouhani fought the elections primarily on the platform of economic revival. He promised ‘developmental economic policies’. In reality, this means employment. Indeed, providing jobs for its fast growing and increasingly young population over the next few years will be Iran’s biggest challenge.

With the measured opening up of the economy following Iran's landmark nuclear deal with the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia plus Germany), expectations have been high. The deal played a role in Rouhani’s re-election. But a vast majority of the people are yet to see the fruits of the agreement.

It is clear that if Iran truly wants to achieve its economic potential, it should look to build better relations with the outside world, especially with its Gulf neighbours. Most big international firms have huge business interests in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the current state of Iran’s relations with these countries is preventing these companies from establishing closer business ties with Iran. Tehran should engage in meaningful dialogue with the Gulf states to iron out the differences that have emerged as a result of its regional policies.

(The writer is an editor at The Delma Institute, an international affairs research house based in the UAE)
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