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Jahangir Karami

Head of the Russian Department at the Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran and the Senior Fellow at the Institute for Iran-Eurasia Studies (IRAS)

On May 20, 2017, Hassan Rouhani won a complete victory as Iran’s president for the second time. Being praised for successful Iranian Nuclear deal implementation and economic recovery during his first term, currently Rouhani has new challenges to meet and promises to accomplish. What main social and economic changes to be adopted during his second term? Will Iran strengthen its positions on the global arena? What is the future of Iran–U.S. and Russia relations? Jahangir Karami, Head of the Russian Department at the Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran and the Senior Fellow at the Institute for Iran-Eurasia Studies (IRAS) comments on the elections results and shares his vision regarding Iran’s future.

On May 20, 2017, Hassan Rouhani won a complete victory as Iran’s president for the second time. Being praised for successful Iranian Nuclear deal implementation and economic recovery during his first term, currently Rouhani has new challenges to meet and promises to accomplish. What main social and economic changes to be adopted during his second term? Will Iran strengthen its positions on the global arena? What is the future of Iran–U.S. and Russia relations? Jahangir Karami, Head of the Russian Department at the Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran and the Senior Fellow at the Institute for Iran-Eurasia Studies (IRAS) comments on the elections results and shares his vision regarding Iran’s future.

What were Rouhani’s proposals in the beginning of the electoral campaign and how did they change throughout the campaign? What let Rouhani obtain most of the votes?

The incumbent President Rouhani was confident in his ability to win the election; therefore, he tried to handle the election gently without intensifying the competition. But in the days leading up to the election, due to the negative advertising used by political rivals against his administration, Mr. Rouhani’s propaganda team tried to launch a propaganda attack on through the use of pointed language against the competition. This led to the polarization of political competition, and motivated many voters in favor of Rouhani.

However, a large part of Rouhani’s victory is owed to the fact that he was the president for four years. Over the last forty years, no president in Iran has been in office for only one term, with the exception of the two presidents running the office during the early days of the Islamic Revolution, who were either ousted or martyred before their presidency was over. In other words, a portion of the votes was given to Rouhani, because he was the incumbent president.

Another reason was that Mr. Rouhani was supported by the reformers. Reformers in Iran usually receive considerable support and votes in major cities, and these votes, in both rounds of election, were given to Rouhani. Iran’s middle class is taking shape, and in big cities, and among educated Iranians who are increasingly growing, rationalization, modernization and reformism have found more important than ever. The people in this educated urban class communicate with each other through new channels and social networks, and usually individuals like ex-president Khatami and Mr. Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the family of the late Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani lead this social and political movement, and many of the traditional Principlists/Conservatives in Iran like Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri and Ali Larijani, the former and current speakers of Parliament, respectively, also support them.

Another part of Rouhani’s success relates to his actions during the past four years. His actions, especially in the field of foreign policy, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the lifting of sanctions, and the events that happened in the country are significant for many Iranians. More importantly, a climate of ‘peace of mind’ is governing the country. Under Rouhani’s presidency, Iran was not involved in any issue that could cause tensions at the international or domestic level. There was a peaceful atmosphere in the country.

Finally, he could handle the challenges posed by the rivals in the election campaign exceptionally well, and his rivals were unable to take advantage of the conditions in the debate atmosphere. Using the economic and religious discourse, the rival candidates emphasized economic problems, and tried to take advantage of issues such as poverty and inequality, as well as some religious issues. Contrasting this strategy, Rouhani emphasized the importance of political and social discourse, and placed importance on political and social freedoms while also stressing the idea of having a better interaction with the world. This allowed Rouhani to be an unmatched leader in the debate atmosphere and in the eyes of the public opinion. He was more politically experienced than his rivals, which also helped him appear stronger in the eyes of the people during the election debates.

Although Rouhani’s rivals could win the majority of votes in 9 out of 31 Central and Eastern provinces, they all failed to obtain such votes in the rest of 22 provinces. All of these reasons led him to secure the office of the presidency, winning nearly 60% of the votes, with a 73% overall turnout.

Despite a range of limitations, Iranian citizens intensively use modern technology regarding media (social networks, messengers, Media websites, radio, TV). How do modern media technologies change the electoral process in Iran?

The contemporary society of Iran is a relatively open society, and is not bound by many limitations. This becomes increasingly more important, particularly due to the fact that a significant portion of the population uses cell phones, social networks, and satellites. In the Iranian elections, new media and social networks served as very effective instruments of public influence. Their influence was also seen in the last election, with the 2015 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections being of note in this respect. During this period, more than ever, social networks played a role in the proceedings of the election, and a significant portion of the population followed the news and latest developments through these networks. But rivals could use these networks as well, who also tried to take advantage of modern communications facilities. Generally speaking, however, these social networks proved very effective to mobilize young people and the middle class, bringing in segments of the population who are usually less sensitive to the condition of election to the polls. The new media also brought a large portion of the middle class to the polls.

How did the failed attempt of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to register as a candidate for the presidency influence the voters and the electoral process?

Former Iranian president Ahmadinejad has supporters who supported Rouhani’s rivals. If he had gained a position as a candidate, I do not think that he would have won the elections, and a variety of reasons can be mentioned in this regard. First, the stressful environment and economic sanctions during his presidency are still alive and vivid in the memory of people. Second, much of the rhetoric used by Ahmadinejad to mobilize people to vote has lost its momentum in the new period. For example, he insisted on the continuation of Iran’s nuclear program,, however, currently this issue is not considered the main issue for the Iranian people. He additionally emphasized the class gap in his campaign rhetoric. During this election campaign, Rouhani’s rivals also emphasized the relevant issues more than Ahmadinejad did, but to no avail. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf played a stronger role than Ahmadinejad, and accused the government of trying to attract the votes of Ahmadinejad’s supporters. I think that the presence or absence of Ahmadinejad in the election was not a major issue. Even if he had been a candidate up for election, a part of his votes coming from the religious constituency would have gone to Rouhani.

What provoked Ghalibaf and Jahangiri to drop out of the race? How did this decision influence election results?

It was clear that Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri ran as a candidate to prevent the advertising pressure against the Rouhani administration. From the beginning, he stood as the candidate of the reformists; however, he did not intend to continue competing after Election Day. But the withdrawal of Ghalibaf was unexpected, and as has been said, the agreement between Conservatives served as the main reason for his withdrawal, which would consequently increase the number of Ebrahim Raisi’s votes to some degree. After all, Ghalibaf’s withdrawal had no significant effect on the election atmosphere, simply because candidates had a relatively constant number of votes, and through the intensified political polarization in the election atmosphere, both political parties had already known the approximate number of their votes in the last days, and their vote distribution remained relatively unchanged.

What was the attitude of Mohammad Khatami and Ali Khamenei towards the candidates, and how did their support affect the outcome?

The leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly insisted that he would remain impartial in the elections, not offering formal support for any of the candidates. He was more interested in increasing voter turnout, and spoke about economic concerns and the effectiveness of the government. Converse to Khamenei’s position of neutrality, ex-president Khatami, along with other reformist leaders, supported Rouhani’s administration. In the three recent elections held in Iran, Khatami’s views have played a very important role. The Conservatives affirm this observation, widely approving of the influence Khatami extends over popular opinion leading into elections. Khatami is very popular for his sense of morality and ethical behavior in politics among a significant portion of the population, especially with the urban middle class and the lower classes as well. He is a politician who has no economic, moral, or political stigma in the eyes of many people, and despite facing limited media and video coverage, he is today considered the most powerful channel of media in Iran, so much so that one of the Conservatives remarked that elections in Iran have become a system of political appointments that have been directly approved by Khatami. Although this statement is an exaggeration, the fact that that he is very popular, especially among young people, cannot be ignored when analyzing which factors influence the public the most during the election process.

What allowed for the reformists’ victory in the country’s municipal elections?

In the elections for City Council positions, the reformists won the elections not only in Tehran, but also in the most of the country’s major urban centers. The reason lay in the fact that the City Council, in most cities, has been mainly in the hands of Conservatives in the recent rounds of elections. It should be also added that the reformists had a single, consolidated platform that was promoted via social networks to young people. Events occurring over the past year before the City Council elections, such as the fire at commercial buildings (the Plasco building) in Tehran, and the urban problems related to this accident, were effectively utilized as tools to attack the Tehran mayor Ghalibaf, and the current City Council. In reality these problems are neither related to the mayor nor the City Council, but their rivals seized the opportunity to scapegoat them as the individuals responsible for the suffering of the affected citizens.

What main social and economic challenges is Rouhani going to face?

With the electoral system, the maximum participation of people and an effective regional position and the support of the majority of people for the government is a major priority of the governing body. Iran is considered an important and powerful country in the unsafe Middle East, and must maintain stability on the domestic front in order to maintain this position. Iran’s new government that emerged from people’s votes has ample opportunities to take action. But, of course, the government has to handle various challenges as well. The first challenge relates to the power structure in Iran. The power structure in Iran, unlike countries with a presidential system such as Russia, is such that President only possesses a part of the power, with accompanying structures and institutions as that, according to the Iranian Constitution, are not under the control of President. Another challenge is that there are many economic problems in the country. Dependence on oil was, and is, always a problem in the governments before and after the Islamic Revolution. Unemployment is also today’s largest economic and social problem in Iran. It should also be noted that there are significant environmental problems in the country as well, and most importantly, the economy of Iran has been involved in a relatively stagnant situation in recent years, and foreign investment is required to get the country out of this recession. Although after the nuclear deal (JCPOA), this kind of investment has started, and continues to grow, it could not yet yield practical results in the economical fields and the economic boom.

At the regional level, the government is faced with the Saudi government’s sabotage and the competition created by Saudi Arabia, and also a coalition created against Iran. Iran is involved in the Syrian crisis, and the new government should give priority to this issue in its diplomacy and foreign policy. At the trans-regional level, the Trump administration, more willing to take Saudi Arabia’s side in the issues related to the Middle East, is considered a major challenge. Unlike Obama who tried to create a regional balance with the presence of Iran in the Middle East, Trump will create new troubles, whether it is with the implementation of the JCPOA, or by his involvement in the issues related to the Middle East, especially the Syrian crisis.

Iranians have opted for change and openness to the world. How does the re-election of Rouhani change the position of Iran in the global arena?

Rouhani’s reelection is the continuation of the same path chosen in 2013. By choosing him, people once again selected the path of moderation and constructive engagement with the world and the reduction of international pressure and sanctions. Rouhani’s coming to power for the second term has promoted Iran’s status, more than ever, in the eyes of world public opinion and governments asking for global peace and stability. But America’s reaction to the Iranian people’s choice is very negative, and Trump, in alignment with Saudi Arabia, a regime devoid of the most basic principles of human rights and democratic and enlightened principles and as the main center for all terrorist thoughts disturbing peace and stability in the regional and global levels, and launching a propaganda attack on Iran, expressed that his administration was only interested in short-term financial interests, and not in democracy, peace, and stability.

Are there any foreign policy approaches used in the first term that are expected to be reconsidered during Rouhani’s new presidential term?

I think the new government will focus more on regional issues. Under the previous government, the top priority was to resolve the nuclear issue, and reach an agreement to lift the international sanctions. The government was trying alleviate the country of the international economic pressures, while also using the nuclear deal as a basis for regional cooperation and international relations. Naturally, the new government will try to improve its regional relations, reduce regional pressures, and most importantly, find solutions for the regional challenges, such as the crisis in Syria which is currently the most important regional issue. Iran will attempt to bring the Syrian crisis to a point that will restore the regional stability of the Middle East. This government will also try to reduce the regional gap that, unfortunately, has been created by Arab-Western coalition, which has incurred high costs to governments and people of the region, and has the potential to turn into a religious war.

During electoral campaign Rouhani spoke about his readiness to negotiate with the US. What main obstacles will Rouhani face when dealing with the American administration?

The issue of foreign policy in the Islamic Republic of Iran is beyond the powers of president, as he is only a part of the foreign policy decision-making structure. The history of four decades shows the issue of Iranian-American relations has become very complex, and problematic. The relationship between Iran and the US is facing obstacles and problems both in Tehran and Washington and also in the regional partners of the two countries, and cannot be easily solved. No government in Tehran or Washington can easily overcome this issue and begin any legitimate negotiations concerning the issues in question.

At present, the US government has taken a tough stance towards Iran’s government, and has essentially blocked any actual channels to engage with Iran by taking the side of Saudi Arabia in the regional issues. But at the same time, I am not very pessimistic, and experience has taught us that anything is possible in the world of diplomacy. Even in these circumstances, with a domestic consensus and persuasion, especially by interacting with Iran’s Supreme Leader, President Rouhani can take a path in favor of diplomatically engaging with America on the regional issues, and preventing the deterioration of the situation to protect against a series of costs imposed on the nations of Iran and other countries in the region.. Today, America is much weaker and more infamous than in the past, and I believe that problems between Iran and America have incurred costs not only to both countries, but also to their regional partners, and the two sides can take a logical path to reduce these costs. Of course, all this is subject to the fact that America reconsiders in its dual policy on terrorism and its support for terrorism in the region.

Rouhani’s re-election coincides with Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia. How could Trump’s anti-Iranian statements made in Riyadh influence Rouhani’s foreign policy agenda?

It is natural that the Trump administration’s positions will greatly affect the attitudes and positions of Iran’s government toward Washington. These positions and attitudes are noteworthy in several respects. First, they will strengthen an Iranian consensus within the structures of the Islamic Republic of Iran against the US. Second, they will strengthen the party, which is tougher on the negotiations with America in Iran, and will bolster their arguments concerning Washington’s behavior. Third, they will, in practice, limit all existing facilities and opportunities for any kind of engagement. Therefore, these statements not only serve as a detriment to American interests and the regional issues, but also make conditions more difficult holistically. Naturally, even if Trump had the interests of America in mind, he should not have taken such a policy towards Iran, especially in the days that the largest, freest, and most democratic elections of the region were happening in the Middle East. It seems that these positions are more affected by the pressure of the Jewish lobbies, the role of anti-Iranian groups like the People’s Mujahedin of Iran and/or the role of diplomacy of financial reward and bribery given by Saudi Arabia.

In March, less than two months before Iran's presidential elections, Rouhani paid an official visit to Moscow. Vladimir Putin was among the first leaders to congratulate Hassan Rouhani on his victory. Can we expect an increase in political cooperation between Russia and Iran?

The relations between Iran and Russia are seen as a strategic issue under various governments since 1989. After the message of Imam Khomeini was sent to Gorbachev and the late Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani’s visit to Moscow, a ten-year cooperation contract was signed between Tehran and Moscow. The reason for this agreement is that Iran and Russia share common interests on various issues. Despite some differences in interests and positions, overall, the areas of common interests for the two countries are too broad. The previous government of Mr. Rouhani, with this goal, tried to extend the relations with Russia. Fortunately, in the last four years, great achievements have been made in terms of creating legal, juridical and institutional grounds for the development of bilateral relations with Russia. International excuses and obstacles such as economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council have been taken out of the way of relations between the two countries. The current trend of relations between them is also very promising. This trend will continue under the new government as well, and the Rouhani administration will continue to develop its relations with all countries in the world, especially countries in the region and with Russia, within the framework of constructive engagement policy. The new government is determined to expand cooperation with Russia on various issues.

Tehran is trying to work with Moscow on issues related to Central Asia and Afghanistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the regional stability and security, issues related to the Caspian Sea, and to continue the dialogue and technical meetings between the two countries to reach an agreement on the Caspian Sea, as well as to cooperate on issues related to the Caucasus region through tripartite mechanisms applied in the past two years for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and finally, work on cooperation in the areas of communication and transportation in the North-South Corridor.

Iran will also continue its cooperation with Moscow with issues related to the Middle East, the ceasefire plan, and the plan to create de-escalation zone in Syria. I think that the relations between Iran and Russia will be more prosperous than before, and that the two countries have widespread interests in bilateral, regional and international issues. They are also aligned in strengthening the pluralist trends of the international system and preventing any trend that makes it possible to sustain the Western-oriented international system. Of course, we should not turn a blind eye to some existing differences between the two countries, for example, on issues like the Syrian crisis and its future prospects.

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