Although Iran’s citizens are hampered by a flawed political system in which elections continue to be neither fair nor free, they insist on pursuing a peaceful path towards greater political and social freedom. The turnout in the 2017 election was a powerful statement in itself, being 75% as compared to the 56% that turned out for the U.S. American elections in 2016. Their reward is that the incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate reformist, has won a landslide victory by securing 57% of the vote.
If this extraordinary result is seen within a regional context, it becomes even more remarkable. In many of the other countries within the region there are no elections let alone peaceful reformist ones. Even in Saudi Arabia, President Trump’s first port of call there is a total lack of democracy.
First and foremost, the Iranian people remained consistent in their rejection of the candidate that seemed to have been favored by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Furthermore, Iranians have sent out a clear message to those who have tried to move them to boycott democratic resistance to government coercion. They have pushed aside and ignored exiled opposition groups and Washington hawks and neocon who demanded that the elections be boycotted. They also refused to go the other way and vote for the hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi. A tactic that would have been designed to force a confrontation. Clearly, they prefer to remain true to their own political instincts.
Iranians have ignored external tensions and pressures caused by President Trump’s criticisms of the nuclear deal agreed by his predecessor. They have also put aside their disappointment and concerns with respect to lack of real sanction relief to continue supporting diplomatic initiatives, détente and cooperative negotiation. This they have done despite the fact that hardline elements in Iran’s own government have been campaigning for a more assertive approach to international relations. It is extremely rare these days for the politics of moderation to secure a major electoral victory, anywhere in the world.
The Iranian population, in alliance with the leaders of the Green Movement, has also chosen to give Rouhani a second chance to make good on his promise to improve the human rights situation in Iran. This election has given him a stronger platform on which to build. It has also taken away any excuses he may have had for not making good on the promises thus putting him under pressure to reward those who have put their faith in him.
The Iranian people expect Rouhani to resist hardline forces who still see arbitrary arrests and executions as legitimate means to control opposition, and take decisive steps to protect Iranians’ human rights and civil liberties. Moreover, they would like to see Iran improve international relations and thus improve potential economic growth.
Any failure on Rouhani’s part to fulfill these hopes will inevitably harm Iranians’ belief that the people’s will is being represented. They may conclude that democratically expressed wishes cannot make a real political difference and once again leave the future to the conservatives, who would so dearly love to return to a confrontational course that leaves Iran isolated once more.
In the meantime, the EU, through its Foreign Policy Head Federica Mogherini, has immediately congratulated Rouhani on his victory. In complete contrast to President Trump, who favors pushing Iran back into isolation, the EU has reiterated its commitment to making the nuclear deal work. The EU has been seeking a more inclusive security framework for the Middle East and will certainly continue to do so. Ensuring that the nuclear deal succeeds is a key element in that. The visit of Trump’s administration to Saudi Arabia, a major rival of Iran, puts the USA not only a collision course with Iran but also its Western allies on a major security issue
The Iranian people have spoken out for a policy of dialogue. They sense that if the Middle East is to have a peaceful future, it requires fewer hawks and weapons and more diplomacy. They would prefer to see the USA and Iran resolve their differences, for example, over Syria and Yemen at the negotiation table. The big question is whether President Trump will agree to embrace this historic opportunity.
Finally, the election draws the question of who will succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader more forcibly into the spotlight. His landslide victory certainly has not done Rouhani’s chance any harm should he choose to run for that key post. The election has the potential to kick-start a major shift in Iranian politics.