TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Presidential Election Sets Back Hardliners
May 22, 2017

Iran’s Presidential Election Sets Back Hardliners

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• Iran’s incumbent President Hassan Rouhani decisively defeated the country’s hardliners in the May 19 election, winning a first round victory with 57 percent of the vote.

• Ibrahim Raisi, Rouhani’s main competitor in the contest, lost despite his alliance with Iran’s Supreme Leader and the unification of hardline groups around his candidacy. 

• The election indicates that a solid majority of Iranians reject a return to policies that might isolate Iran or cause the re-imposition of crippling international sanctions. 

• Rouhani’s re-election improves the prospects for some direct diplomacy with the Trump administration, but will not prevent the administration from intensifying efforts to counter Iran’s regional influence.

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Amid a large 73 percent turnout of eligible voters, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani won a first-round victory in the May 19 presidential election, garnering a decisive 57 percent of the vote, far exceeding his 50.7 percent majority in the 2013 election. Rouhani’s main rival, Ibrahim Raisi, garnered 38 percent of the vote despite having the clear backing of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the security establishment led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Since July 2016, Raisi has been considered a front-runner to potentially succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader. Whereas a victory by Raisi would have rendered him a clear frontrunner for that elevation, his 38 percent showing is also considered strong enough to keep his succession prospects alive. 

The 2017 election could represent a key turning point in Iranian politics and Iran’s relationship to the international community. In contrast to 2013, the field of hardliners was unified behind one candidate, Raisi, to avoid a split in the hardline vote. Rouhani’s decisive win—bolstered by strong voter turnout—suggests that the hardliners will have a difficult time winning any future Iranian presidential election. A clear majority of the Iranian public apparently voted not necessarily to endorse Rouhani, but rather to oppose a return to the policies that had previously caused Iran to become isolated and subject to crippling U.S.-led sanctions. Rouhani had delivered on a key promise—achieving the lifting of sanctions in conjunction with a landmark agreement with the United States and other major powers to implement restraints on Iran’s nuclear program. Even though most Iranians have not yet experienced tangible economic benefits from sanctions relief, Iranian voters clearly turned away from Raisi’s candidacy in part for his potential to increase tensions with the international community and possibly trigger a re-imposition of those sanctions. 

Despite his decisive victory, Rouhani will have significant difficulty delivering on public expectations for his second term. During his re-election campaign, Rouhani openly criticized hardline institutions for repressing freedom of expression and dissent. Yet, it is unclear that Rouhani will have any more success reining in the instruments of repression within the hardline IRGC and judiciary than he did in his first term. These institutions remain outside his control, solidly within the purview of the Supreme Leader, who refers to the incarcerated leaders of the 2009 uprising as “seditionists” and vetoes their release.

On foreign policy, Rouhani attracted voters with a promise to not only adhere to the seminal nuclear deal a position Raisi also took—but to go beyond the agreement to reach broader understandings with the United States. Such understandings could yield the lifting of the remaining U.S. sanctions that make international firms hesitant to re-engage in Iran, but which would also entail compromises that the Supreme Leader and IRGC are likely to thwart. A lifting of U.S. terrorism-related sanctions would require Iran to sharply curtail its support for Lebanese Hezbollah and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria—requirements that the hardline Iranian establishment would not permit under almost any circumstances. Similarly, the lifting of U.S. proliferation sanctions would require Iran to cease developing ballistic missiles—a reversal that Iran’s hardliners would almost certainly block. 

Rouhani’s inability to change Iran’s key national security policies will likely ensure that the Trump administration continues to strengthen alliances with Iran’s regional adversaries. President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia this past weekend included the signing of a major package of new U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including a Saudi purchase of the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile system designed to intercept Iranian missiles. Trump’s visit also included discussions of institutionalizing U.S.-Arab alliances intended, in large part, to counter Iran’s regional influence. The visit raised the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership to new heights by implying that the United States will increase its support for Saudi-led efforts to defeat the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, despite the humanitarian consequences of Saudi-led operations there.   

At the same time, the Rouhani re-election offers the potential for the Trump administration to incorporate some direct diplomacy with Iran into its overall strategy. While criticizing Iran’s policies extensively, in April the Trump administration certified Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, and it continued to waive U.S. sanctions under the agreement in May. During Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which began as Rouhani was declared the winner in Iran, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that, at some point, he expected to talk directly with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. That statement introduced a previously absent diplomatic element into Trump administration policy which may offer a new opportunity for engagement between the two long-time adversaries. Yet, it remains to be seen how such direct bilateral engagement could overcome decades of mutual hostility and put the relationship on a more peaceful and productive trajectory. 

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