Iranian elections: A new page for reconciliation or a major dilemma for Mideast?

MERVE ÇALHAN
Published

The Iranian presidential elections ended on Saturday in a notably vivid political climate. The elections represent a significant juncture for both Iran and international society because it came right after the signing of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries in 2016. It was also the preliminary platform where the Iranian electorate took up its political stance after sanctions were lifted following the nuclear deal in 2016. As expected beforehand, more than 70 percent of Iran's registered 56 million voters cast ballots. Based on the results of previous elections in Iran, Iranian voters are motivated to vote heavily. Either they criticize a leader or their expectations rise with regard to the future socio-economic trajectory of the country. Official results were announced Saturday, and Rouhani won 57 percent of the vote, far ahead of his conservative rival İbrahim Raisi. Iranians preferred to remain with the same president because expectations have soared since the nuclear deal was signed, ending Iran's international isolation and crippling economic sanctions.

From the beginning, Rouhani was the odds-on favorite among five other candidates, who were selected by Iran's conservative-run Guardian Council from a field of more than 1,600 candidates. Incumbent President Rouhani had already rallied large support following the nuclear deal that enables Iran to become a part of the international community once again. His foreseeable victory was guaranteed when reformist candidate Eshaq Jahangiri, who entered the election race to defend the incumbent's achievements, dropped out in favor of Rouhani. His victory will directly affect both domestic and international levels.

When it comes to domestic work, Rouhani's best card is the nuclear deal, which helped him get a boost ahead of the presidential election. Unfortunately, the Iranian people have yet to see the fruits of sanction relief in the real economy, and the lifted sanctions have not yet provided a much-anticipated boost to the economy. So what is the real driving force that makes voters, who are from different demographic backgrounds (of all ages and from different locations), line up as never before at polling stations? The answer is not just that the long-awaited nuclear deal actually is more than sanctions relief. People who were highly motivated to vote for Rouhani expect something beyond the deal, which is just the beginning of opening up Iran to the rest of the world. They are banking on Rouhani's next move to bring more freedom, pluralism, governance and merit-based bureaucracy. Having carried a heavy load on his shoulders, Rouhani and his team now has to rush to meet the mounting expectations of the Iranian people and invigorate the sluggish Iranian economy. Iranians want Rouhani to focus on domestic problems.

A LONG WAY TO GO IN THE REFORMIST AGENDA

To be elected president, Rouhani focused exclusively on international matters in his first term, so his focus was on economic revival rather than deep structural socio-economic reforms. It was not possible without lifting sanctions; however, sanctions are being lifted gradually in a 10-year process. Now, Rouhani has to engage in structural reforms that were pledged in the strategy document, "Rights of Citizens," drawn up in his previous election campaign. The document is promising, and it is quite different from previous ones with a specific focus on the notion of citizenship. General articles in the document concern civil charter rights, a merit-based bureaucracy, comprehensive administrative reform and ecological problems.

PEACEFUL MESSAGE IS AN ILLUSION?

Rouhani's re-election for a second term also has a direct effect on international matters. In his victory speech, he vowed to follow his previous open dialogue channel with the rest of the world and emphasized that the result of the election is a clear sign that the Iranians prefer "peace and friendship" to "violence." He also sent a direct massage to the world and invited more investment and strong relations with foreign countries in light of the nuclear deal. From the perspective of Gulf countries, enabling Iran to become an active part of the international community, the nuclear deal might directly exacerbate regional crises because most of the financial gains (roughly $100 billion frozen in foreign accounts) will cover military expenses as a monopoly on Iran's socio-economic establishment process. Arab countries are still drawing on deep satisfaction based on the fact that the nuclear deal might have a direct positive effect on the growing regional superiority of Iran that they perceive as Iranian Shiite expansionism, recently expedited, especially following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. They worry that the expected economic benefits stemming from the nuclear deal encourage Iran to play a more pro-active role in its already extremist interventions in conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. On the other hand, the election of Donald Trump as U.S president raises serious questions about the future viability of the nuclear deal after Trump called the nuclear deal "one of the worst deals ever." However, according to China, Russia and the U.K., it is the best controlling mechanism to prevent Iranian nuclear proliferation activities.

The re-election of Rouhani might bring about various major conflagrations in the region, even if his victory speech has a rather peaceful tone. If Trump prefers to continue with his harsh rhetoric concerning the terms of the nuclear deal, the reform-minded Rouhani might take a hardline stance and be forced to counteract from the perspective of the conservative wing where massive antagonism against America is still valid and used by Iran's hardliners. In addition, although Rouhani convinced Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to continue with nuclear negotiations, Khamenei is still wary of the U.S.'s actions in the region and its real intentions over Iran. At the end of the day, unless Iran has rooted out the sources of the entrenched areas of tension (such as Shiite expansionism, nuclear weapons and interventionism in Syria and Iraq) between its neighboring states and the U.S., the possibility of installing a reconciliation platform will dwindle. It seems that coming up with "a catch-all" solution will take time, while Iran plays its major destabilizing role in the region.

* Middle East studies research master's degree at ODTÜ

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