Reuters Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a press conference in Tehran, May 2017.

Iran After the Election

Rouhani Battles the Shadow Government

On May 19, Iran held presidential elections. The moderate incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, won a second four-year term by a landslide. Rouhani ran on a platform of engagement with the world, including the United States and Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors, and domestic social, political, and economic reforms. The hardliners ran on a populist and isolationist platform, and they lost the election by a large margin. But that doesn’t mean that the battle is over; hardliners are now seeking to oppose Rouhani more forcefully by creating a shadow government.

The idea of a shadow government has floated around Iran’s political circles in the past. In 2005, reformists who had lost the election to hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad raised the possibility. But it never materialized, mostly because the regime tends to favor stability and continuity and likes to present an image of unity. But campaign seasons, although short in Iran, can be brutal. People openly discuss their country’s future; the candidates approved by the Guardian Council debate the options on national television. Almost inevitably, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who tries to present himself as remaining above politics, steps in to remind the candidates that they should be mindful not to step over the boundaries or target each other personally. As a result, the system emphasizes unity after the elections even as it can create or reinforce divisions during campaigns.

This time around, to avoid creating instability, Rouhani’s hardline opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, congratulated the president and wished him success. But that was after he initially questioned the results, and he continues to stress that his constituents’ wishes shouldn’t be ignored. Raisi managed to tap into the growing dissatisfaction with the nuclear deal’s implementation; average Iranians still don’t see much of an effect from sanctions relief and economic recovery. He received 15.5 million votes—or 38.5 percent of the total cast by his compatriots—while Rouhani won 23 million—or 57 percent. Raisi and his principalist allies, who believe in self-reliance and returning to the The 2017 presidential elections were a resounding “yes” for the moderate and reformist agenda in Iran.

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