Hassan Rouhani
Hassan Rouhani; drawing by James Ferguson

“We have immense opportunities and we can use them,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told a group of campaign workers a few days after he was reelected to a second term on May 19. “What is it that we want? We are waiting for a cleavage, an opening, but we need to bring about that opening ourselves, so it is definitive.” It was a call for Iran’s moderates to capitalize on their resounding triumph over conservatives and finally push the country toward a liberal political order.

The president received 23.5 million of 41.2 million votes cast in the election, compared with just 15.7 million for the conservative candidate, Ebrahim Raisi; the remainder went to two peripheral candidates after two others had stepped aside. This does not take into account the large number of people—as many as four million, Rouhani has claimed—who were still in line to vote when the polling stations closed and who could not cast a ballot.

Raisi has complained that his opponents committed electoral fraud on a large scale, but this seems unlikely since the election results were certified by the supervisory Council of Guardians, which is full of his conservative friends. Despite the fact that Raisi was generally thought to enjoy the backing of the immensely powerful Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the hard-line military establishment in the form of the Revolutionary Guard, and the state-run broadcast media, Rouhani managed to increase his share of the vote from the 51 percent he received in 2013, when he was first elected, to 57 percent.

Rouhani’s strengthened mandate and the scenes of joy that greeted his reelection, with crowds taking to the streets to sing jingles in his praise, would seem to warrant his confident appeal for a new “opening,” for isn’t a liberal, democratic Iran now finally in sight? In the electoral campaign, the Iranian president, who has held other sensitive posts over a career devoted to the Islamic Republic, contrived to sound like an outsider. “We want freedom of the press,” he declared during a rally on May 13, “freedom of association, and freedom of thought!” And in another rally he answered the question of why he had not established these seductive freedoms, admitting ruefully, “I often had problems keeping my promises [to the electorate]. What I promised…either I did, or wasn’t allowed to do.”

In these few words by a sitting president, confessing his inability to change things very much, lies the conundrum of modern Iranian politics. The president can do little without the acquiescence of the Supreme Leader, who, the constitution makes clear, is answerable primarily to God, not the people. Several other unelected institutions—most notably the Council of Guardians, which can block legislation, veto candidates for office, and declare elections invalid—serve as a formidable bulwark against change. So do the judiciary and the military establishment. Thus Rouhani’s plaintive confessions of weakness reflect the reality that an Iranian politician becomes an outsider the moment he is elected to the presidency.

The country has been waiting for democracy since 1906, when Iranians rose in agitation, limited the powers of the Shah, and gained their first parliament. This was the start of a saga lasting several decades during which supporters and detractors of representative government opposed one another. Four shahs and two changes of regime later, the election of the Islamic Republic’s first reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, in 1997, promised further democratization, but Khatami’s efforts were blocked by some judges, generals, and senior clerics.

Yet this conservative establishment, for all its power, has been on a slow train to extinction. With each election since 1997, including the two that marked the hideous dogleg of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight years in power, its ability to conjure enthusiasm for a doctrinaire Islamic Republic has been on the wane. So does Rouhani’s latest victory, less than fourteen months after he steered the country into a nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers, give him the impetus he needs to convert his bright slogans—rights, unity, and private enterprise—into reality?

The answer is probably no, and not solely because the state’s traditional centers of power will unite against him as they did against Khatami. Deeper psychologies are working against Rouhani, the most important being a pervasive belief that the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed, because “they”—a pronoun that usually refers to the hard-liners, but can be stretched to include anyone wishing Iran ill, including Donald Trump’s America—won’t let it happen. Some of the people who voted for Rouhani last month no doubt hoped he would be able to bring change, while others regard him as a way to avoid something far worse. This is the balance of sentiment that endows Iranian elections with a certain drama: it may not be possible to effect meaningful reform, but it is possible to stave off a lurch to reaction.


A few days before the election, political enthusiasm was indeed in evidence among reform-minded Iranians, but it was driven in part by a fear that if the Rouhani vote wasn’t big enough, the conservative establishment would rig the result in Raisi’s favor. This is what many people believed happened when Ahmadinejad was reelected in 2009; his “victory” was disputed by millions of protesters, which led to months of unrest that was brutally suppressed.

On May 19, even Iranians who had previously expressed hostility to the idea of voting went in large numbers to cast ballots. Conservative-minded voters were roused by the Supreme Leader’s call for increased participation as a way of confounding enemy plots. Turnout was 73 percent—much higher than the 60 percent of Americans who voted in last November’s presidential election. But a high turnout is quite different from sustained engagement with the political process.

One need only follow Telegram, a popular Persian-language social media app, or sit in a shared taxi, or stand in line at the fruit market to get a quite different impression than that suggested by the euphoric scenes in Tehran after the election results were announced. In each case one meets with a stream of invective aimed at the country’s ruling elite—their venality, their hypocrisy, and the shallowness of their commitment to the people they profess to serve. The day-to-day attitude of many middle-class Iranians toward the state is marked less by political fervor than by deep cynicism and a sense of fraying civility, which has been exacerbated by Rouhani’s inability to deliver jobs and prosperity following the nuclear deal.

The failings of Iran’s governing class were exposed to public ridicule after January 19, when a fire in a seventeen-story shopping center in central Tehran led to the building’s collapse and the deaths of twenty-two people, including sixteen firemen. Official investigations have since brought to light that the owner of the building, a powerful religious foundation, had neglected to maintain it, that firefighters had lacked hoses of sufficient power to deal with blazes on high floors—the fire service’s budget was in arrears—and that shop owners were able to cross police lines to retrieve valuables from the burning building, increasing the loss of life. (Around 75 percent of the building’s shopholders were uninsured.)

Social media were full of expressions of disgust at the unseemly buck-passing that followed the tragedy, and there were reports that disgruntled firefighters had been transferred in order to prevent them from airing their grievances. To older Iranians the disaster recalled the fire that broke out at the Rex Cinema in Abadan, in the south of the country, in 1978, which crystalized opposition to the Shah and helped precipitate the revolution the following year. In fact, Rouhani, who broke with tradition by commissioning an independent investigation into the fire led by academics, came out of the affair quite well—a further reminder that he represents the more liberal and enlightened wing of the system.

If cynicism at home is one of the forces that will drag against Rouhani’s reformist intentions over the next four years, another is the United States’ attitude toward his government. Broadly, and in defiance of a more hawkish Congress, the Obama administration was in favor of Rouhani—and Secretary of State John Kerry developed a friendly rapport with the Iranian minister of foreign affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The same cannot be said of the Trump administration. The day after Iranian voters returned their president to office by a landslide, Trump paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, where he called on all “nations of conscience” to “work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” This despite the fact that Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state, has conceded that Iran is complying with its side of the nuclear deal.

Trump has disparaged the nuclear accord as a “fantastic deal” for Iran under which the US “paid” the mullahs $150 billion, enabling them to support extremist groups that “spread destruction and chaos” across the Middle East. Leaving aside the president’s customary aversion to facts—the US made no new payments to Iran, but permitted it to access around $40 billion in frozen funds that had belonged to it all along—a common refrain has emerged among Republicans that Iran is prospering as a result of the lifting of sanctions while its leaders wait patiently for the deal to elapse (in twenty-four years), at which point they will go back to bomb-making. Trump has also expressed frustration that European companies are free to make money in Iran while American companies remain barred from doing business there by bilateral sanctions imposed in response to human rights abuses, the Iranian missile program, and the country’s support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.


That Iran is prospering would be news to the majority of its citizens, who are finding it difficult to get by, and a considerable number—as much as a third of the population, according to some measures—live in “absolute poverty” that has been exacerbated by recent austerity measures. Rouhani has had to keep a tight rein on spending because he inherited an economy in crisis. In the final months of the profligate Ahmadinejad government, inflation reached around 40 percent and there was a dramatic slide in the value of the rial; the fact that last month the electorate again chose austerity, and not the Ahmadinejad-style handouts pledged by Raisi, suggests that voters realize that populist redistribution stores up pain for later.

As a result of the 2015 nuclear deal Iran can once again sell oil on world markets, though depressed prices have kept revenues lower than the government had anticipated. (The sudden spurt in oil sales over the last Iranian year, running from March 2016 to March 2017, propelled economic growth to well over 6 percent; now that oil sales have been factored into growth, this rate is expected to drop sharply.) Furthermore, the rapid flood of foreign investment that senior officials had predicted during negotiations over the deal—$100 billion into oil and gas, $85 billion into petrochemicals—hasn’t materialized. Last year, 400,000 business visitors came to the country on fact-finding missions, many of them attracted by Iran’s diversified economy and young, educated middle class. Many memoranda of understanding were signed, but few binding contracts.

Where a quick buck can be made—such as in the case of Boeing, whose deal to sell Iran a fleet of airliners has been quietly approved by the Trump administration—the need to “work together to isolate Iran” may be set aside. But a broader economic reconnection between Iran and the world remains a fantasy. From a factory manufacturing air-conditioning units near the Iraqi border that has been unable to receive German components without long delays, to the business consultant whose fee was blocked by his British bank because the word “Iran” appeared in the transfer reference, all the way up to the major European oil companies, who have so far signally failed to invest substantial sums in the country, it’s as if sanctions haven’t actually been lifted.

Foreign compliance departments remain transfixed by the huge fines that US courts handed down to non-American enterprises for carrying out transactions with Iran—worst hit was the French bank BNP Paribas, which was fined $8.9 billion in 2014. European companies have received no assurances from the US that such “secondary” fines won’t again be levied; many of these companies won’t go near Iran until they do. Iran’s ambition of raising sovereign debt seems unrealizable for the same reason: no big European bank would underwrite it. This is significant because Iran’s factories and businesses are suffering from a chronic shortage of cash, with the result—particularly ominous in this restless society—that salaries are in arrears across the public and private sectors while unemployment among those under twenty-five runs at almost 30 percent.

Iran’s stresses do not result from the country being penniless; the increasing visibility of luxury goods imported to fill the marble-clad penthouses of north Tehran and the flotillas of high-end German cars heading to villas on the Caspian coast for the summer indicate that it is not. To ordinary citizens who have no access to such refined living, who are not clothed or shod by the international brands that have entered the country in profusion, and who make do with third-rate public transport, horrendous pollution, and stagnant wages (when they are actually paid), it feels as though the nuclear dividend, like the sanctions dividend before it, is going to someone else.

Although Iran has suffered from serious corruption since the state’s first moves to liberalize the economy in the 1990s, the current panic about pervasive speculation began during the Ahmadinejad years. By the time he left office in 2013, his government could not account for billions of dollars in oil revenues and had run up at least $50 billion in government debts to banks, contractors, utilities, municipalities, and pension funds. Many bogus privatizations took place during his presidency; the new “private” companies were in many cases asset-stripped and their workers driven away by nonpayment of their salaries.

Ahmadinejad also presided over the militarization of the economy, with companies affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard entering or increasing their presence in telecoms, hydrocarbons, engineering, and banking; the Guard also controlled the smuggling of goods across the Persian Gulf—justified as a patriotic response to sanctions—which added to Iran’s already significant off-the-books economy. Bribery spread in the penumbra of sanctions-busting, and it doesn’t seem to have diminished under Rouhani. An oil official recently told the Financial Times that while kickbacks and commissions might have added 10 percent to the cost of a $1 billion project in the early 2000s, the mark-up nowadays can be fully 200 percent: “The people whose roots are in the system have become incredibly greedy.”

Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum Photos

Iranian university students visiting the ruins of Persepolis, February 2017

During the election campaign this spring few people were surprised when TV debates between the candidates degenerated into mudslinging over dodgy property deals; power, money, and land are as tightly interconnected in Iran as they are in Manhattan or Rio. In one debate, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the hard-line mayor of Tehran, who later withdrew in favor of Raisi, claimed that Rouhani had bought valuable land at a big discount. The president retorted with an allusion to Babak Zanjani, a businessman who was sentenced to death last year for siphoning billions of dollars in revenues from oil sales he had engineered in violation of international sanctions: “Didn’t you give a person who looted people’s wealth a license to build a thirty-three-story tower?” (It is not clear whether Zanjani has appealed his sentence.)

As indicated by the slurs that were exchanged in the debates, Iranian capitalists widely prefer buying land to investing in the “real” economy. A recent item in the reformist newspaper Shargh reported that “certain military and state institutions” had expropriated some one thousand hectares in one of the country’s eastern provinces, and described how one such institution, which it left tactfully unnamed, had seized a plot of several hectares under the pretext of erecting a single cell tower. During Ghalibaf’s twelve-year tenure as Tehran’s mayor, there has been a sharp rise in the construction of high-rise buildings, a source of considerable income for the city authorities. “So why,” in the words of Shargh, “with all this revenue…is our air dirty, and why do our traffic problems grow day by day?”

For all the public’s disgruntlement, Iran doesn’t seem likely to go through another revolution soon. The country’s progressive forces have just been to the polls and elected their candidate—a reminder, however backhanded, of their relevance to the political process. These progressives also remember the ease (and violence) with which the forces of “law and order” rushed the protests following Ahmadinijad’s reelection in 2009, with a campaign of public correction that led to around a hundred deaths and thousands of injuries and arrests. (Ebrahim Raisi was among the judicial officials whom a senior cleric accused of being behind the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988; following the disputed 2009 elections, he was part of a high-powered judicial team that rubbished accusations that the security forces had tortured protesters in detention centers; he also claimed that the leaders of the protest movement had been placed under house arrest “for their own safety.”)

Political apathy has been reinforced by the Islamic Republic’s relative stability compared to the chaos that afflicts neighbors like Iraq, Afghanistan, and—recently—Turkey. The state functions; illiteracy has been eradicated; clinics offer free health care even in remote villages; and high rates of first-world problems such as divorce, drug addiction, obesity, and consumer debt suggest that Iranian society is growing less rigid and more modern and confused.

In early June, Iranians’ sense of security was badly shaken by two extraordinarily brazen acts of terrorism in Tehran, aimed at the parliament building and the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, in which twelve civilians were killed in addition to the five attackers, and forty-six people were wounded. The Islamic State claimed responsibility, while Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said that it was “significant” that the attacks on Tehran came so close on the heels of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia—a reflexive insinuation that does, however, show the extent to which domestic security is now linked to the region’s conflicts. The attacks were the first major sign of blowback from Iran’s involvement in the fight against ISIS, in both Iraq and Syria, and while the military authorities have vowed revenge, this incident may also stir those—mostly reform-minded—Iranians who are discomfited by the country’s foreign adventures.

Amid these shifting sentiments, the regime’s durability is linked to the longevity of a single man. The Supreme Leader is now seventy-seven, and the death last January of the one person who could approach him in seniority and experience, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was a reminder that no stalwart is immortal. From being all but unmentionable, the succession to Khamenei has become an obsessive topic, leading to wild speculation that suggests how opaque the mechanism for replacing him is. The Supreme Leader is elected in closed session by the Assembly of Experts, a body made up of around eighty-five ayatollahs, many of whom are little-known to the public; possible candidates are said to range from ultra-hard-liners like Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi (a man who believes that the regime is answerable only to God) to Rouhani himself (despite his lack of high credentials as a theologian). In truth, no one outside a very tight circle can guess how the voting might go, nor, indeed, what Khamenei’s wishes are, and whether they will be honored.

From his public pronouncements it is clear that Khamenei wants to bequeath to his successor a powerful Islamic state that won’t surrender to Western liberal values. He is tightly wedded to the concept of the velayat-e faqih, or Guardianship of the Jurist, which deputes the Supreme Leader to run the state in the absence of the occulted twelfth Shia imam. Khamenei is also committed to anti-Americanism and the message of cultural identity that is conveyed by the compulsory hijab. To the uncertainties over the next Supreme Leader may be added ambiguities over the nature of the office. Some reformists have long—if privately—advocated that the Supreme Leader’s powers should be trimmed to make him more like a constitutional monarch, and that he should be elected by universal suffrage. Such reforms would fray the bond between power and God that makes the Islamic Republic the semitheocracy it currently is.

A jaded populace waiting for the economic fruits of a nuclear deal that could yet be further undermined by the Trump administration: this is the backdrop for the maneuvering and jockeying that will take place over the next few years, with the Revolutionary Guard and the religious foundations trying to influence the search for a new Supreme Leader. Despite his atrocious record in office, Ahmadinejad also wants to be involved, as demonstrated by his unsuccessful attempt to run again for the presidency in May. After Khamenei warned him against it, his candidacy was vetoed by the Council of Guardians. But time is on Ahmadinejad’s side; at a comparatively youthful sixty, he will likely live more summers than Khamenei.

For all the uncertainties at home and in its relationship with America, Iran continues its march in the near abroad. Since the turn of this millennium the end of dictatorships in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rebellion against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad have allowed Iran to gain regional influence as the main adversary of Sunni hegemony. By using diplomacy, proxy warfare, and political and economic influence, the Islamic Republic has carved out a hinterland in western Afghanistan, enjoys a controlling stake in Iraqi and Lebanese political life, and wields a “Shia sickle”—composed of Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its own militias—in Syria alongside Assad’s army and Russia. Many Iranians are unhappy with the support being given to a secular tyrant, but according to a useful recent report on the subject by the Royal United Services Institute, an independent British think tank, Iran is strengthening its “deep state” in Syria, particularly in those southern areas that are contiguous with Lebanon. The same report predicts that Iran will try to keep Hezbollah in Syria even after the war ends.*

Perhaps surprisingly, given its willingness to use Shia identity strategically, the Islamic Republic remains a less sectarian place than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose dominant discourse is suffused with anti-Shiism. Amid the dilution of Islamic revolutionary ideology and the global disarray of liberalism, the message one hears most insistently in Iran these days is a nationalist one. As members of Islam’s minority sect, it is rare to hear Iranians vent strong anti-Sunni sentiment, and one certainly doesn’t hear anything comparable to the murderous anti-Shia rhetoric of ISIS. (There is a small population of Sunnis in Iran, consisting mostly of Kurds, Baluches, and Turkmen.)

In this, Ahmadinejad—strange to say—was something of a visionary, promoting a “school of Iran” that was implicitly an alternative to the universal school of Islam. The idea that Iran was a better place before the Islamic invasions of the seventh century is a popular one, heard from old people and schoolchildren alike, and often accompanied by casual disparagement of Arabs and expressions of bitterness at the Western countries’ failure to carry out their side of the nuclear deal. “Why is everyone so determined not to let Iran progress?” a young, Westernized Tehrani asked me in April. I heard a similar question from a group of female seminarians in the religious center of Qom. Across the political and economic divide, all Iranians are patriots now.

—June 14, 2017