That Sweet Taste of Victory

President Rouhani has effectively mauled his conservative rival to mount a massive win, but he will need to do much more to make this grip on power permanent; SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI reports from Tehran

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Shiveh Aryan wears Gucci sunglasses. Shiveh Aryan drives a high-end Toyota. Shiveh Aryan is stylish. Shiveh Aryan resides in Tajrish – one of Tehran’s several posh localities. Shiveh Aryan’s mother is going through radiation treatment for cancer. Shiveh Aryan says that lifting of sanctions has made radiation medicines readily available. Shiveh Aryan voted for Hassan Rouhani. But so did millions of others.
Standing at North Tehran’s posh Hosseinieh Ershad locality could have easily made anyone believe that Rouhani will win by an impressive margin. This area in particular and Northern Tehran in general has been a bastion of Reformist and Moderate figures like Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. It was natural that people here will come out in hordes for Rouhani. And they did when the time came.
However, things were not so hunky-dory in the run-up to the elections. The alarm bell for President Rouhani had already been ringing for over six months. After the initial euphoria of the Nuclear Deal with P5+1 had died down, some cold hard questions started emerging. Iranians started asking when the benefit of the nuclear deal will become evident on the ground. While changes started happening, they were painfully slow: partly because of its inherent nature and partly because economic structure of the country dragged the process down. Oblivious of these facts, people started showing signs of impatience. Principlists grabbed on to the opportunity and started attacking the administration. And then something else happened that put Rouhani on the back foot. One morning in early January, cleric and exPresident Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died in his sleep.

The looming role of expresidenT hashemi rafsanjani in iran’s poliTics cannoT be sufficienTly  exaggeraTed

The role of Rafsanjani in Iran’s politics cannot be enough exaggerated. Rafsanjani started as a key person to the leader of the Islamic Revolution Ruhollah Khomeini. He was instrumental not only in the moral victory of Iran in the war imposed by Saddam Hussein; he also stood steadfastly with the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during his accession process. In the later years of his life, he started acting as a kingmaker for Reformists and Moderates candidates including President Khatami and disgraced candidate from 2009 elections, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. When Rouhani came into picture in 2013, it was Rafsanjani who acted as a bridge between Rouhani’s Moderate camp and Khatami’s Reformist one. However, Rafsanjani was more than merely an ideological daddy. His vast financial empire – much of which was created with not so legal means – also acted as the financial backbone for the movement. With Rafsanjani out of picture and Khatami’s wings clipped, Rouhani suddenly found himself rather alone in the political arena.

“The most vivid picture of Rouhani is of him looking stunned at the funeral of Hashemi Rafsanjani. You could sense that the President was not prepared for such an eventuality,” remembers journalist and filmmaker Mostafa Pourmohammadi.
But then, suddenly, Rouhani recovered and raised the stake. He quickly cobbled up a visit to Moscow where deals worth several billions of dollars were struck. This gave the signal that things are in the offing. Around the same time, something else delivered too. A petroleum refinery that was constructed following the lifting of the sanctions, started producing refined petrol and diesel, making Iran completely self-dependent in refining process for the first time in two decades. Sanctions had devoid Iran of technology required to set-up modern refineries. Consequently, it had to import some quantity of refined oil, leading to an oil-bill. “As a result of proper measures taken by the government and also the positive environment created in the post-sanctions era, Iran has been inundated with visiting foreign trade delegations from countries across the globe. Foreigners have shown interest in making investments in the country and sharing their technologic know-how in various industrial fields. Consequently, the Rouhani administration succeeded in signing various agreements to attract foreign investments for implementing infrastructure projects to revamp road, rail and air transport systems,” says noted Iranian economist Haniyeh Sadat Jafariyeh.
However, all these were not enough. Principlists were emboldened by the fact that a large section of Iranians still believed that Rouhani administration had nothing to show for years of negotiating the deal. Surveys after surveys returned the verdict that if Rouhani has to win the election, he’ll have to ride on anything but the Nuclear Deal.
While this was happening, Principlists were stitching up their own coalition of sorts.
Seyed Ebrahim Raisi was brought from the relative oblivion and was projected as the main candidate. As custodian of the Astan Quds Razavi, Raisi presides over a rather huge empire of charitable trusts, but his interaction with people was minimal. However, he quickly learnt tricks of the trade and established himself fully as the main Principlist challenger in the first ever “Primary” of a sorts among the conservatives. They also showed the initial momentum as rallies showed extraordinary participation all over the country, including their opposition bastion of Tehran. This correspondent covered the Tehran rally of Raisi and later saw the worry spread over the faces of Reformist-Moderate supporters.
However, there was still a glitch. A Baqer Qalibaf size glitch. Baqer Qalibaf, a Principlist, is the mayor of Tehran for several years now. His performance as a mayor was exemplary. This is a fact that is conceded by even the worst of his critics. This correspondent has also seen the city change for better during his numerous visits in the last decade. Qalibaf, therefore, decided that he was better suited than Raisi to take on the ModeratesReformists bandwagon. A third Principlist candidate, a lightweight called Mir-Salim, was also in the picture. Suddenly the spectre of the previous election loomed large over the Principlist camp when too many candidates split conservative vote and assured Rouhani’s victory in the first round itself. However, the fear was not enough to convince any of the three Principlist candidates to withdraw. The stage was set.
This election also saw an American-style debate among the candidates. Since it was a new phenomenon among the Iranians, the vent created much enthusiasm among the masses. Initial rounds of debate made it pretty evident that Rouhani was no match to the blistering attacks by Baqer Qalibaf. Qalibaf, a seasoned political hand, quickly realised that catering only to the traditional pool of conservative voters would not be enough. He recalibrated his rhetoric and started attacking Rouhani’s administration from the position of a representative of the middle-class and the downtrodden.  He termed it a fight between the “four per cent vs 96 per cent” implying that Rouhani and his administration is the representative of the interests of the elites. This position found some really good traction, and made the situation further uncomfortable for Rouhani. Rouhani, although a brilliant administrator, is not a very skilled orator and it was evident in these debates. Although he attempted to counter Qalibaf with some acerbic wit, he came out mauled in these debates.
Then, Principlists made a fatal mistake. Instead of asking Raisi to bow out, they asked Qalibaf instead. Sources close to Qalibaf told this correspondent that the mayor was not happy about it at all, but had to bow out in the larger interest of the conservative camp. Suddenly, apropos to nothing, Rouhani saw the weight lift from his shoulder. He grabbed the chance and raised the stake even further.

principlisTs made a faTal misTake in ThaT insTead of asking ebrahim raisi To bow ouT of The race, They asked Qalibaf insTead

Pushed to the corner, Rouhani believed that his goose is cooked if Iranians don’t come out in huge numbers to vote. Less voting has historically benefited the Principlist camp, and Rouhani was aware of the pitfalls. He became convinced that for him to win he shall have to act more like a Reformist candidate than the Moderate one that he is. And that is what he did. In the last round of debate, Rouhani started taking on Judiciary and other arms of Islamic Republic that are historically dominated by Principlists. He hit the roof when he directly took on the allpowerful Revolutionary Guards – although without mentioning its name – for conspiring to sabotage the Nuclear Deal.
This attack, and deliberate positioning as a Reformist, suddenly endeared him to the section of young Iranian voters who would not have come out and voted otherwise. A veteran Leftist analyst, who has refrained from participating in any polls, told this correspondent that he is going to vote as he does not want the rhetorical and confrontational days of Ahmadinejad back. This correspondent also found a couple of Monarchists – otherwise not very bright youngsters – who went out and voted for Rouhani for, what they said, “lack of better alternative.” Surely these groups acted as force multipliers.
On the day of election, people came out in droves. This late surge in support catapulted Rouhani to a bigger victory than the last time. Rouhani won 23.5 million (around 57 per cent) of the total vote, while his closest rival, Ebrahim Raisi, received 15.7 million (38.5 per cent). The other presidential candidates, Mostafa Mirsalim and Mostafa Heshmitaba also collected 4,78,215 and 2,15,450 votes respectively while Vice-President Es’haq Jahangiri and Tehran’s Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf dropped out of the race days before the election. At the final count, over 74 per cent of 56 million eligible Iranian voters voted.

(Clockwise from Top): Qalibaf would have been a better choice over Raisi for Principlists; Rouhani took potshots on all-powerful IRGC; (Overleaf): New Airbus plane with Iran Air livery; Supreme Leader remains the topmost authority

Voting at conservative bastion of Shehare-Rey, Naseem Rezazadeh, 35, appeared uninhibited of her choice. Voting for Rouhani, she said, “I am voting again for Rouhani because he has improved the social condition of women. I know that nothing much has been done at the job creation front but I have still voted for him because I have faith in him. He will protect my rights.”
This was uncharacteristically candid for a female Reformist-Moderate voter to admit while voting in a conservative bastion. This is also indicative of how much Iran has changed in the last four years of Rouhani.
At other locations, where people were mainly voting for Raisi, the biggest grudge against Rouhani was his failure to create jobs. Almost everyone who this correspondent talked to in different locations in and outside Tehran, irrespective of whom he or she voted for, maintained that Rouhani administration had nothing to show for as the benefit from the Nuclear Deal.
Says noted commentator Sajjad Ebrahimi, “The administration is unable to generate all the required jobs. It should rather pave the way for the private sector to create jobs. Thus efforts to promote the business ambience assume greater significance. Policies are needed to break the monopoly of certain industries, ease bureaucratic procedures, create investment security, end intervention in setting prices, establish stability in the regulations and enable transfer of technology and boost productivity in the production sector to fulfil the objectives to generate jobs.”
Those voting for Rouhani were voting primarily because they trusted in his diplomatic style of engagement with the world over a possible confrontational Ahmadinejad-like style of the prospective Principlist winner.
Raisi, like Rouhani, also tried to broaden his base and in the process stepped on the minefield. Raisi met with underground rapper Amirhossein Maghsoudlou aka Tataloo, in an effort to attract the social base of the popular singer and give a signal to the prospective young voters that the Principlists will not limit social freedoms if he comes to power. While this did not cut much teeth with the liberal base, it sure did anger his own base that still believes in conservative values and abhors characters like Tataloo to no end.

Those voTing for rouhani were voTing primarily because They TrusTed in his diplomaTic sTyle of engagemenT wiTh The world

A lot also depended on campaign. This was one area where Rouhani completely outsmarted Raisi’s camp. And by some margin. Rouhani’s cadres were everywhere. They especially made use of modern social media tools, particularly messaging apps such as Telegram, to reach out to and mobilise their base. However, that is not to say that they abandoned the traditional means of campaign. Cadres and supporters alike were seen all over the city canvassing for Rouhani. A particularly interesting aspect of Rouhani’s campaign was the overwhelming participation of females. At several occasions this correspondent saw female supporters of Rouhani – not necessarily cadres – trying to convince people to vote for him. A part of this was also triggered by the fear that a win for Principlists will see tightening of social norms, something many of the women were not comfortable about.
Raisi’s campaign on the other hand clearly lacked this kind of mobilisation. They depended almost entirely on traditional means of canvassing where his cadres used to haul down cars and bikes in the middle of the road and offered people a cup of sherbet. They also attempted to use Telegram but it was either aborted or had a still birth.
Therefore, by the evening of May 19 when the deadline for voting was pushed to 12:00 in the midnight, it was evident that late surge will catapult Rouhani to victory. And that is precisely what happened. However, winning the election is just half the work. Rouhani will have to negotiate several minefields and pitfalls in the years to come if he aspires to be even moderately successful. Principlists control several other organs of the state, and will definitely use it to climb back. Although Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei remains steadfastly neutral in internal political matters – irrespective of the countless dishonest insinuations by the western media – the same cannot be said about other organs of the state; most notably its media wing, Islamic Republic Information Broadcasting (IRIB).

wiTh a seasoned diplomaT like Zarif aT The helm, experTs believe ThaT The world will see furTher inTegraTion of iran in The order

It is expected that Rouhani will feel emboldened and try to trim the powers of such organs. However, that would mean a protracted battle where results are vague. Or, Rouhani can set about working for the benefit of the Iranian nation. In that case, his biggest challenge would be to create jobs, as well as correct the fundamentals of the economy in order to attract more investment.
“Iran’s economic growth has improved and one can see in the midst of this election that the Iranian youth are aspiring for a more peaceful life, much more enthusiastically than the youth in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. We have dramatically replaced the 2011 Turkey, with Rouhani and Zarif becoming the new rock stars of peace and democracy in the Middle East. Fears and hopes over Rouhani’s re-election are not limited to Iran’s civil society: political and civil activists in Middle East capitals and metropolises are looking forward to Rouhani’s re-election, so that the only beacon of hope in the Middle East does not fade,” maintains noted Iranian expert Saman Safarzai.
There are other areas as well where efforts would be required. One of these is subsidies. While Iran maintains a very pro-people subsidy regime; the inherent corruption in the system has rendered it rather obsolete. A more focused subsidy regime that is targeted towards those who really need it is the demand of the time.
“Subsidies should come to the aid of the vulnerable strata and contribute to economic growth. Hence, doling out monthly cash handouts to people from all walks of life irrespective of their financial requirements is unfair and an inefficient policy which is economically unjustifiable. The government should draw up comprehensive plans to distribute the allowances among the lowest income group of the population,” adds Ebrahimi.
Iran also needs to do more on the foreign policy front. With a seasoned diplomat like Javad Zarif at the helm of affairs, experts believe that the world will see further integration of Iran in the order, without losing its inherent rights or dignity. There are several challenges ahead on this front as well. Saudi Arabia and the neighbouring Persian Gulf regimes are ruled by irrational despots who don’t understand the meaning of diplomacy. Saudi Arabia particularly is now in the hands of a generation of princes who have little relevant education or acumen to act in a rational manner. The Shia boogie is being used by these monarchies to create hatred for Shias in general and Iran in particular. The defeat of their designs in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen means that they are extremely frustrated and might act foolishly. The responsibility now lies on Iran to save the region from a widespread war.

Tehran needs To do more diplomaTically in order To bring all The parTies in baghdad inTo iTs sphere of influence

Says noted foreign policy expert, Sayeed Jalal Sadatian, “Iran’s political problems with the West are among obstacles that hamper foreign trade. This is because Iran’s banking ties with some of the international banks are not at the desirable level as these banks are influenced by the policies adopted by Washington. Hence, tenacious efforts are needed to resolve the Islamic Republic’s tensions with the US and certain European countries. Besides, the Rouhani government should also increase its efforts to promote ties with other countries, including regional ones. Iran enjoys huge economic potentials which can attract large investments provided it boosts ties with all states.
” The most challenging of it all is Syria. As the West and Persian Gulf countries see their interests defeated in Syria, it would not be surprising if they try and widen the war. West and PGCC-supported terrorist groups have now either been neutered or expelled from central, west and southwest Syria. They still have pockets of influences in southern Syria and control almost the entire province of Idleb. Continuous support of allies like Iran, Russia and Lebanese Movement Hezbollah has almost assured that defeating Bashar alAssad through a proxy war would be impossible now. This is precisely why the West and PGCC countries have shifted their strategy and are manufacturing Casus-Belli for a direct foreign intervention.        Although strategic matters are not in the purview of Iran’s President, and are dealt directly by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; it will fell to Zarif and the team to negotiate the diplomatic cesspool. In that regard, those enthusiastic pro-Zionist western commentators who are predicting a withdrawal of support from Palestinian cause would see their dream dashed rather ruthlessly. Support to Palestine and the Resistance Axis is central to Iranian ideology, and no compromise shall be made on those come what may. The same goes for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
However, Iraq is another ballgame. Tehran needs to do more to bring all parties in Baghdad into its sphere of influence. The recent comments by Muqtada al-Sadr indicates that he has unlimited political aspirations, and Iran will do well for himself either by co-opting him addressing his grievances, or isolating him within the larger Resistance Block in Iraq to the point where it becomes impossible for him to wield his influence.
In the absence of overt rapprochement from the European countries, Iran will look towards China and Russia to strengthen its regional bond. Further improvement of relationship with Pakistan would also go a long way in not only securing the relatively restive Sistan-Baluchistan region but also in Afghanistan where a desperate Islamic State is looking to find safe haven. Zarif has an excellent rapport with his counterparts in Beijing and Moscow. Islamabad, however, shall need some additional effort.
Coming back to domestic affairs, Rouhani’s liberal support base will like him to further loosen social norms that restrict internet access and other things. Talking to Iranians it has become clear that there have been marked changes since the days of Ahmadinejad but further efforts are needed. The more inclusive the policies shall be the more demographic dividend Iran can reap. No country in the region is sitting on the cusp of such demographic dividend as Iran does. It has a huge population base of young people who are not only well-educated but mostly well-aware as well. It will now entirely be on the Rouhani administration to make use of this dividend and catapult Iran further as a regional superpower.
The coming few months shall be interesting as both the ideological poles of Iran recalibrate their strategies in the wake of the election result. Principlists need to completely overhaul their tactics and message to remain relevant in the face of changing demographic reality of Iran. Reformists-Moderates coalition on the other hand needs to make use of this opportunity, and not squander the chance, to further solidify their grip on power. They have raised the expectations to a hitherto unimaginable height. How much of that can they deliver will be the key to their future too. Iranian voters have long-term memories, and are ruthless in their retribution. That Mohammad Khatami was succeeded by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not a mere exception. It can happen again. It will now completely depend on Rouhani to stop that phenomenon from repeating itself. How successful shall he be is anyone’s guess.