Rouhani's landslide quells risk of escalation, despite Trump's hostility

Rouhani's landslide quells risk of escalation, despite Trump's hostility
Comment: Just a day after Iranians re-elected moderate negotiator Rouhani, Trump accused Iran's government of wanting death to America, and closed a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis.
6 min read
High voter turnout was key to Rouhani's victory [AFP]

With the landslide re-election of Rouhani, the people of Iran have made their preference clear: Progress, moderation and continued improvement of relations with the outside world.

But Rouhani's victory was far from guaranteed. His progressive agenda, his support for the nuclear deal and his pledge to improve the economic conditions of the Iranian people resonated with the majority of voters, a sign that the once nearly omnipotent conservative religious establishment is slowly losing its sway. 

Rouhani's landslide victory matters

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was rumoured to favour Raisi to become his successor. Given Raisi's defeat by such a wide margin, his chances of securing the position have declined substantially (if not completely diminished). 

While the process of selecting the next Supreme Leader is distinctly undemocratic, the clerical elite probably won't throw its political weight behind a candidate that clearly lacks popular support. Rouhani may even be in with a chance of becoming the next Supreme Leader.  

One of Rouhani's biggest achievements in the election was a boost in turnout. In order to win, he had to replicate his 2013 victory, for which 73 percent of eligible voters turned up at the voting booth. This time round, the major threat to his re-election was voter apathy, especially in the cities (where turnout is usually much lower than in the conservative-leaning countryside).

But Rouhani overcame this challenge convincingly: The lines at the polling stations were so long that the polls stayed open for an extra five hours.

The high turnout also serves to consolidate the Islamic Republic against dissident exile groups. The Iranian general public has overwhelmingly ignored calls for regime change and a boycott of the presidential elections such as the Reza Pahlavi (son of the last Shah of Iran), and Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), also known as the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI).

A moderate Iranian president with a penchant for diplomacy and negotiation is less likely to provide a justification for the war effort

Having backed Saddam Hussein against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, their support for human rights violations and their cultish activity has cost MEK enormous legitimacy and popularity both in Iran and in the expat community. 

The Green Movement, considered a more significant challenge to the regime's hardliners, endorsed the winning candidate and might now choose to work more with the government in order to reform the regime from within.

While there had been many complaints that the economic benefits of the nuclear deal were not being felt, Iranians have determined that they will continue to choose diplomacy and dialogue over reckless confrontation with the international community. In his first speech after election, Rouhani made this clear, stating that Iran had "chosen a path of engagement with the world".

Rouhani's decisive victory makes escalation much less likely

In terms of foreign policy, Rouhani's victory will be lamented by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of US neoconservatives. Republicans in the US, former Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd Al-Aziz and Benjamin Netanyahu have all repeatedly come out in support of going to war with Iran, sooner rather than later.

As such, they ironically favoured a Raisi victory. But a moderate Iranian president with a penchant for diplomacy and negotiation is less likely to provide a justification for the war effort, a fact that sometimes prompts war supporters to write op-eds pining for a conservative victory. At least in Iran, cooler heads seem to have prevailed, and Rouhani's decisive victory makes escalation much less likely.

The US reaction

The US reaction wasn't exactly overjoyed, but nonetheless struck a moderate tone. Speaking from Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that if Rouhani wanted to change things with the world, he should end ballistic missile tests, engage in democratic reforms and halt his country's support for "destabilising forces".

However, just a day later, Donald Trump launched a fierce attack on Iran in a speech he held in Riyadh. He accused Tehran of "fuelling the fires of sectarianism and terror" and of being one of the bad guys in a "battle between good
and evil".

Trump's speech is therefore best seen as blindfolded pandering to some of America's most sketchy friends

Strikingly, just a day after Iran re-elected a moderate president with a track record of dialogue, he called Iran's government "a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room". At the same time, Trump closed a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis.

Trump's speech marks a sudden and serious break away from Obama's strategy of dialogue and incremental cooperation. His fanning of the flames of conflict, perhaps at the behest of forces within the Republican Party and Israeli government that pine for escalation, is troublesome. 

Criticising Iran for its human rights record while letting Saudi Arabia off the hook, is hypocritical, at best

It shows that regardless of what Iranians may want, if the US rejects cooperation, it isn't happening. It's also to no small degree hypocritical. While Iran is certainly to some extent "fuelling the fires of terror" by supporting Assad's brutal regime in Syria, it is no friend of IS. The US needs Iran if Iraq and Syria aren't to collapse.

Any strategy that antagonises Iran to the point where it refuses any cooperation is bound to be unsuccessful. In addition, criticising Iran for its human rights record while letting Saudi Arabia off the hook, is hypocritical at best. Saudi Arabia - which has no free elections or democratic system to speak of - is a stable US ally but hardly involved in solving the problems in Iraq and Syria, distracted as it is fighting Iranian proxies in Yemen.

Trump's speech is therefore best seen as blindfolded pandering to some of America's most sketchy friends, unlikely to be helpful in achieving sustainable peace in Iraq and Syria.

Rouhani's Iran

When it comes to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Rouhani's Iran will continue to expand its influence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and will certainly try to have a hand in the future of the region after the defeat of IS as a territorial organisation. Its proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen is showing no signs of letting up, despite the rapidly deteriorating situation in the country.

A Trump-led crusader war against Iran is unlikely for now

The largest uncertain factor is Donald Trump. Embattled though he may be domestically, he has a lot of power to challenge Iran, both militarily and economically. It's not impossible that Trump will try to find a way out of his current FBI investigation kerfuffle by further demonising Iran and trying to legitimise an attack (although not necessarily a military one). This would, of course, provoke a fierce response from the international community, so barring overt Iranian aggression, a Trump-led crusader war against Iran is unlikely for now.

Rouhani's comfortable victory is another win for moderate politics. After the tectonic political shifts of 2016, 2017 seems to be reverting to the mean, with victories for Mark Rutte in the Netherlands, Emmanuel Macron in France, and now Rouhani in Iran. The future of the Middle East remains uncertain, although perhaps now to a marginally lesser extent.

Behnam (Ben) Gharagozli received his BA with Highest Distinction in Political Science from UC Berkeley and his JD cum laude from UC Hastings College of the Law. While at UC Hastings, he served as Development Editor of the Hastings International and Comparative Law Review.

Follow him on Twitter: @BenGharagozli

Jon Roozenbeek is a PhD candidate at the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He studies Ukraine's media after 2014. Before coming to Cambridge, he worked as a freelance writer, editor and journalist.

Adrià Salvador Palau Is a PhD candidate in the Distributed Information and Automation Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. He has written several journalistic articles about politics and international relations. He is interested in how data science can be used to better understand political dynamics.

Follow him on Twitter: @adriasalvador