by Javier Solana
Last week, the people of Iran decided to continue along the path toward openness. Fifty-seven percent of voters chose to elect the reformist President Hassan Rouhani to a second term. The rest of the world should welcome Rouhani’s victory as an opportunity further to improve relations with a country that is central to progress toward a more peaceful Middle East.
By winning more than 50% of the vote, Rouhani avoided a second round of voting, just as he did four years ago when he claimed the presidency for the first time. But, unlike in 2013, when his overwhelming victory was a major surprise, most observers considered Rouhani the clear favorite this time around. After all, every Iranian president since 1981 has served two terms in office.
Rouhani’s triumph was likely, but the vote was no mere formality. His main opponent, the hardline conservative Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi, campaigned hard – and had Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, implicitly in his corner. Rouhani’s victory has proven once again that the candidate closest to the supreme leader is not guaranteed victory.
The stakes of this election were particularly high. Iran is at a pivotal moment in its history – and, as the long lines of citizens eager to cast their votes clearly showed, Iranians know it. Indeed, despite the Iranian regime’s lack of transparency, Khamenei’s health problems are public knowledge. Khamenei himself recently admitted that the probability that his successor should be named in the near future was “not low.”
The matter of who occupies the presidency during that transition is certainly not inconsequential. With Khamenei having served as president before rising to Iran’s highest political and religious leadership position, it is easy to see that the conservative candidate Raisi, had he been elected, could have become Khamenei’s successor. Rouhani’s decisive victory, however, may have diminished Raisi’s chances substantially.
Iran’s prospects look quite different with Rouhani in charge. His rhetoric about openness is not mere political posturing. Perhaps the strongest evidence of this is the nuclear deal that he struck with six countries – China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – and the European Union in 2015. That agreement placed very strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions imposed by the US, the European Union, and the United Nations Security Council.
To be sure, Iran’s president is subordinate to the Supreme Leader. And, indeed, the nuclear agreement could not have been reached without Khamenei’s approval, which helps explain why no candidate questioned the deal during the campaign. Nonetheless, the president does wield significant authority, including over domestic policy, which was the main focus of the campaign (as is usually the case in Iran).