High-stakes battle: on the Iran elections

In Iran, it’s still Hassan Rouhani’s election to lose

With Iranians going to the polls on Friday to elect a President, the odds appear to be in favour of the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani. Since the 1979 Revolution, all but the first President of the Islamic Republic, who had been impeached, have served two terms. Mr. Rouhani is particularly popular among the reformist section of the electorate, and is seeking to return to office on a clear political platform of integrating Iran further with the global order and initiating reforms at home. Still, his victory in the first round, for which he needs more than 50% of the vote, is far from certain. In 2013, after eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rule, which saw Iran’s international isolation grow and repression at home harden, voters across the spectrum rallied behind Mr. Rouhani. He had promised to break Iran’s isolation, resolve the nuclear crisis through diplomatic means and turn that into economic benefit for all citizens. He delivered on some of those promises. He clinched the nuclear deal and oversaw greater Iranian engagement on the world stage. But he has yet to make good on his goal of attracting foreign direct investment and modernising the economy. It is partly not in his hands. International companies and banking giants still shy away from making deals with Tehran. Though the UN-mandated sanctions on Iran were lifted after the nuclear deal, the non-nuclear sanctions imposed by the U.S. are still in place. The expected thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran did not take place in the wake of geopolitical tensions in West Asia. Worse, the Trump administration’s anti-Iran rhetoric is not only scaring off western investors but also playing it into the hands of the hardliners in Iran.

The hardliners now see an opportunity to take back power from the “elitist” Mr. Rouhani. Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric and a former aide of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is Mr. Rouhani’s main rival. Though Mr. Khamenei has not openly endorsed any candidate, the clerical establishment’s preference is no secret. The Iranian presidency is not a strong institution compared to other presidential systems. In the Islamic Republic, real power lies with the Supreme Leader, who is not directly elected by the people. Nonetheless, the office of the President lends credence to the country’s theocratic system, and a visionary, popular leader can manoeuvre within the limitations and push his agenda gradually. Mohammad Khatami, one of Mr. Rouhani’s predecessors, tried to do so, with limited success. Though his first term was not flawless, Mr. Rouhani has demonstrated that he is capable of navigating through Iran’s complex power dynamics, perhaps more efficiently than Mr. Khatami could. It is now his chance to convince voters to give him one more term so he can continue this gradualist but substantive reform agenda.

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 8:32:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/high-stakes-battle/article18475146.ece

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