Re-Election of Rouhani: A Call for Renewed Diplomacy
Updated: Mar 27, 2019
When affronted voters took to the streets of Tehran after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s dubious re-election victory in 2009, chants of “Where’s My Vote?” and “Death to the Dictator” signaled a major shift in the Islamic Republic’s political apparatus. For the first time, young, pro-western reformists eager for liberalization and an end to international isolation began to apply significant pressure on Islamic hardliners like Ahmadinejad, critical of westernization and unfazed by American-led sanctions. Not since the Revolution of 1979 had Iran witnessed protests on such a mass scale.
The Green Revolution, as it would come to be known, was the culmination of decades of cynicism towards oppressive regime. For all the promise of this revolution, both to Iranians and the Western World, it came to a screeching halt when the regime deployed paramilitary troops to attack protesters. Conservative clerics reminded Iran that they reigned supreme. Religious clerics comprise two key governing bodies in the Iranian theocratic structure; the Assembly of Experts and the Council of Guardians. The former elects the all-powerful Supreme Leader. Today, that title rests with Ali Khamenei, who since 1989, holds an ultra-conservative grip on the country’s economy, society, and politics. The Council of Guardians interprets legislation passed by Parliament in accordance with Sharia Law and vets candidates for the Assembly of Experts. The nature of Iran’s political structure lends itself to extreme stagnation between liberal reformers and conservative hardliners, as epitomized in the populist discontent of 2009. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the mastermind behind the Iranian Revolution, devised this system. The stern face of Ayatollah Khomeini, best remembered in the U.S. for his stern rebukes of American society, crafted a constitution where Islam and government merged; according to Ayatollah Khomeini, only the clergy may hold true power.
Eight years later, voters still remember the promise of the Green Revolution as they overwhelmingly re-elected the moderate Hassan Rouhani with 57 percent of the vote to his ultra-conservative opponent’s 38 percent. Rouhani’s reelection reassures the West and Iranian reformists; among his campaign promises, Rouhani vowed for “freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom of thought.” Rouhani also supports the Iranian Nuclear Deal, and his re-election ensures that Iran will adhere to it, despite criticisms from Donald Trump and congressional Republicans. Rouhani can use the nuclear deal to make good on his campaign promise for economic growth and an end to crippling sanctions.
Yet, the Islamic Republic still operates according to the stringent hand of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, limiting the implementation of Rouhani’s reformist policies. Ayatollah Khamenei’s conservative orders have the force of law, as ensured in the Iranian Constitution. This theme resonates throughout Iranian history. Elections have little influence on major domestic and foreign policies: individual freedoms are minimal, dissidents and journalists remain imprisoned, and undercover paramilitary soldiers wreak havoc on citizens closely tied to the Green Revolution.
Even if his policies crumble under hardliner backlash, American support for Rouhani will be symbolically important if the U.S. is to see Iran resume normal diplomatic ties. Continued Republican resentment for the nuclear deal will not help reformists as they aim to sustain the Green Revolution in an already hostile environment. It would benefit Donald Trump to interpret the re-election of Rouhani as an opportunity for détente, or an easing in the tenuous relationship. Supporting Rouhani’s vision may counter Iran’s role in funding Hezbollah and Bashir al-Assad.
Rouhani must eradicate his country’s involvement in international terrorism if he wants Donald Trump’s support. Iran’s contributions to Hezbollah, an anti-Israel and Shi’a militant group, numbers in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Iranian support to Hezbollah funnels through illicit “charities” connected to Supreme Leader Khamenei and the elite clergy. The terrorist group serves two purposes: it acts as Iran’s proxy to dismantle a potential peace between Israel and Palestine while spreading Islamic revolutionary fervor throughout the Middle East.
Since its revolution, Iran’s plans to spread Islamic revolutionary fervor have failed. Supreme Leader Khamenei must be pragmatic; funding terrorist groups to spread radical Islam not only solidifies Iran’s pariah status, but it also tarnishes Iran’s reputation in the eyes of other Islamic nations (considering the rise of the Islamic State group). As a reformist, Rouhani could defund militant Islamists. The international community will see Rouhani’s rate of success at this in the coming months as Hezbollah continues to back al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. The Iranian election makes it difficult for Donald Trump to justify his apprehension towards Iran. The United Nations and the European Union affirm Rouhani’s observance of the nuclear agreement, and the International Atomic Energy Agency deemed Iran’s nuclear activity is in accordance with the nuclear treaty. Thus, as the Islamic Republic continues to elect moderates to governmental positions, Donald Trump will find it difficult to reject leaders like Rouhani looking to end decades of resentment between the two nations. For Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans to deny the Iran’s surge towards liberalization would be to deny another ally in the fight to keep peace in the region.