Iran: Still Waiting for Democracy

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…

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