by Trita Parsi
The Iranian population’s political sophistication continues to impress. Despite a highly flawed political system where the elections are neither fair nor free, they overwhelmingly majority chose a non-violent path to bring about progress. They massively participated in the elections with a 75% turnout – compare that to the turnout in the U.S. elections in 2016, 56% – and handed the incumbent moderate President Hassan Rouhani a landslide victory with 57% of the vote.
In a regional context, this election is even more remarkable. In most of the Middle East, elections are not even held. Take Saudi Arabia for instance, President Donald Trump’s choice for his first foreign trip.
There are a few things we can say about the meaning of the Iranian people’s collective action.
First of all, once again, Iranians voted against the candidate who was believed to be favored by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This is now a strong pattern, as I pointed out earlier this week in Foreign Affairs.
Secondly, the Iranians also rebuked exiled opposition groups and Washington hawks and neocon, who called on the Iranian people to either boycott the elections or vote for the hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi in order to hasten a confrontation. Clearly, these elements have no following in Iran.
Third, despite Trump’s undermining of the nuclear deal with Iran, and despite significant problems with the sanctions relief process which has left many Iranians disappointed in the nuclear deal, Iranians still chose diplomacy, detente and moderation over the confrontational line of previous Iranian administrations. Iran is today one of the few countries in the world where a message of moderation and anti-populism secures you a landslide election victory.
Fourth, despite Rouhani falling short on his promises to improve the human rights situation in Iran, Iranians and the leaders of the Green Movement leaders gave him a second chance. But now he has a stronger mandate – and less excuses. Now is the time for him to deliver on the promises that inspired tens of millions of Iranians to elect him twice as president.
He must take decisive action to protect the human rights and civil liberties of the Iranian people, pursue improved relations with the world, and promote economic growth for the Iranian people. The hardline forces behind Iran’s arbitrary arrests and spiking executions may not answer to Rouhani directly, but the Iranian people who elected him expect him to do more in his second term to bring about change. Failure to do so risks disenchanting a generation of Iranians from the belief that their voice can make a difference, potentially ceding Iran’s future to the hardline voices who would take the country back to isolationism and confrontation with the West.
Fifth, while Saudi Arabia is hosting Trump and pushing him to return to a policy of complete isolation of Iran, the EU Foreign Policy head Federica Mogherini congratulated congratulated Rouhani on his election victory and recommitted the EU to the nuclear deal. The election results will strengthen the EU’s dedication to ensuring the deal’s survival as well as its commitment to an inclusive security framework for the Middle East. Consequently, the EU will oppose Trump and Saudi Arabia’s attempt to stage a confrontation with Iran. This puts the Trump administration once again out of sync with Europe and the U.S.’s Western allies on a key security issue.
Sixth, Iranians have once again endorsed a policy of dialogue with the West, but the question is if Trump will unclench his fist and embrace this window for diplomacy. Just as the nuclear crisis was resolved through negotiations, the remaining points of conflict between the U.S. and Iran can also be resolved diplomatically, including Syria and Yemen. This is what the Middle East needs now – more diplomacy, not more arms sales.
Seventh, Congress should avoid undermining the clear pro-engagement message sent by the Iranian people and empowering hardliners by pushing forward provocative sanctions legislation in the wake of the election results. New Senate sanctions are scheduled to be marked-up in Committee this coming week. What a horrible response to the Iranian people after they voted for diplomacy and moderation.
Finally, the power struggle in Iran will increasingly shift towards the question of who will succeed Ayatollah Khamenei and become Iran’s next Supreme Leader. It is widely believed that Rouhani is eyeing this position. With his landslide victory, he has improved his prospects. To some extent, this is what this presidential election was really about.
Trita Parsi is an award winning author and the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. He is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States (Yale University Press 2007), for which he won silver medal winner of the 2008 Arthur Ross Book Award from the Council on Foreign Relations, and of A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012), which was selected by Foreign Affairs journal as the Best Book of 2012 on the Middle East. His latest book is Losing an Enemy – Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy (Yale University Press, 2017).