Hassan Rouhani has won Iran’s presidential election.
Rouhani won 57% of the vote to Ebrahim Raisi’s 38.5% , Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli said at a press conference in Tehran.
Turnout was heavy at roughly 70%, and as expected, high participation among urban, middle class voters helped propel the President to what turned out (no pun intended) to be a landslide.
This pretty clearly shows that there’s still healthy support for Rouhani’s push to make Iran a more open society and paves to way for continued engagement with the West, in contrast to Raisi’s more inward-looking, conservative platform. While Raisi was beaten handily, one imagines marshaling nearly 40% of the vote was good enough to keep him in the running to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei.
While I don’t expect American readers to care too much about this, what I always try to highlight is the juxtaposition between what a lot of people think about Iran and reality. Consider these quick excerpts from the New York Times:
Ayatollah Khamenei remains the ultimate arbiter in Iran’s opaque political system, and he must approve any further changes sought by Mr. Rouhani.
Yet, the supreme leader has demonstrated a surprising flexibility in recent years. While he publicly defends the hard-liners, he has permitted Mr. Rouhani to break some decades-old ideological canons when public pressures grow too intense.
Thus, most Tehran residents have satellite dishes that enable them to watch foreign news broadcasts and entertainment, and couples often walk hand-in-hand through the city’s parks without fear of arrest or harassment.
Progressive Iranians had vowed not to repeat the mistake they made in 2005, when many of them boycotted that year’s election out of disillusionment with the hard-liners’ thwarting of the reformist agenda of the outgoing president, Mohammad Khatami. That allowed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and conservative clerics to elect Mr. Ahmadinejad, who poisoned relations with the West.
This time, prominent intellectuals, actresses, Instagram stars and sports figures waged social media campaigns to urge people to go out and vote for Mr. Rouhani.
In other words, “it ain’t what you think.”
That said, this quote from a Rouhani supporter underlines the ideological tightrope Iranians must still walk:
“A big margin victory, and god forbid the supreme leader passes in the coming four years, Rouhani will, at least temporarily have a better command to run the country,” said Fazel Meybodi, a Shiite Muslim cleric from the city of Qum, and a supporter of Mr. Rouhani.
Or, translated, “god forbid that motherfucker were to die, we could actually get some shit done. But you know, ‘god forbid.'”
“Rouhani now gets his second term, and will be able to continue the work that he started in his first four-year term trying to reform Iran,” Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull notes, adding that the President will need to “try and bring much more economic progress to satisfy the people who have found themselves extremely disappointed with the very slow pace of change since that agreement was signed.”
It’s also important to remember that Iran is, contrary to media reports, actually Washington’s greatest ally in the fight against Sunni extremists. Sunni extremists like ISIS.
While Kurdish fighters (the Peshmerga in Iraq and the YPG in Syria) have done an admirable job of standing their ground and have demonstrated (again) that they aren’t predisposed to being batshit crazy, the real check on ISIS in Syria is Hezbollah and the real check on ISIS in Iraq are Iran’s powerful Shiite militias. Time and again, ISIS and the FSA which, Turkish protestations to the contrary, is littered with extremists, have proven no match for Hezbollah in Syria – especially when Hezbollah began benefitting from Russian airpower.
In fact, one could pretty easily make a quasi apples-to-apples comparison between Hezbollah+Russian air force versus the FSA and the YPG+ American air power versus ISIS. It’s the same setup: organized militias backed by modern air support versus Sunni insurgents. Well let me be the first to tell you, there is no question what the more potent one-two punch has been. Hezbollah+Russian air force wins that one every time.
Now make no mistake, it’s horrific what Russia, Hezbollah, and whatever’s left of the Syrian army have done to cities like Aleppo. And regular readers know Heisenberg is no fan of Bashar al-Assad. But that’s not the point. If we abstract ourselves from the politics and look solely at an objective measure of success in fighting Sunni insurgent groups, anything that starts with “Iran-backed” is always – always – more effective.
So the point here is that the Trump administration needs to view Rouhani’s victory as a positive development for the possibility of continued cooperation over Iraq, where the government is basically run by the Iranians. Without Iran, there is no fight against ISIS in Iraq. The Peshmerga will defend the Kurds, but I have serious doubts about the extent to which they give a shit about ISIS as long as there aren’t any black flags flying over Erbil.
If the US is serious about pushing ISIS out of Iraq and maintaining stability in the country, then Washington needs Iran and Rouhani’s win should help. Because believe me, the leader of Iraq is not named Haider al-Abadi. The person running Iraq is actually a guy named Qasem Soleimani. You should look him up. And while Rouhani has been criticized by some in the Western media for praising Soleimani, you kind of have to look at that from the perspective of, “well, what the fuck do you expect him to say?” You can’t really not praise Soleimani if you’re located anywhere in his geographical reach. Just ask Mustafa Badreddine what happens when you try to “disagree” with the General. At least with Rouhani, you’ve got a shot at bilateral discussions on the fate of Iraq.
Obviously, there’s no prospect for cooperation with Tehran in Syria. But the point stands. You do not want to alienate the Iranians (which Trump is well on his way to doing) especially when the vast majority of voters in Iran quite clearly support further cooperation with the West.
So yeah, this was an important election.
Meanwhile, in a society where no one will be voting for anything anytime soon…