Analysis

It’s the West’s Turn Now That Rohani Has Won in Iran

It's especially Europe’s chance to face up to Trump's brutal policy of sanctions and make Iran a diplomatic and economic partner

A supporter of Iranian President Rohani distributes brochures in Tehran on May 17, 2017.
ATTA KENARE/AFP

The votes in Iran were still being counted Saturday when the congratulations started pouring in. Russian President Vladimir Putin and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini were among the first to congratulate Hassan Rohani for his reelection as Iran’s president. The leaders of Kuwait and Qatar joined in, and little doubt most world leaders were thanking God that Rohani would stay on as president.

The Tehran Stock Exchange also showed optimism by rising nicely Saturday, and multinational corporations calmed down when they realized they wouldn’t be expected to make difficult decisions like freezing planned investments in Iran.

As in a Western democracy, it was impossible to know the election outcome for sure. It was also impossible to know the voter turnout, which according to official figures topped 75 percent – to the surprise of the Iranians themselves almost 15 percentage points higher than in previous elections.

This was Rohani’s great accomplishment after striving in his campaign to bring to the polls the 40 percent who normally don’t vote. Not all 40 percent may have cast a ballot, but most of them are in the reformist wing, the result showed.

The large turnout and Rohani’s victory with 57 percent of the vote, compared with a little over 50 percent in the last election (his rival Ebrahim Raisi won around 39 percent) show that most Iranians are willing to give Rohani another chance. They granted him the legitimacy to continue implementing domestic reform and connecting Iran to the world.

No less important is the voters’ message to the conservative elites, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guard and the justice system, which must translate the people’s choice into a political and foreign-policy strategy. For them, the main question is how to brand their failure. Did the public choose Rohani because of the 2015 nuclear agreement with the big powers, which the supreme leader also supported, or was Rohani elected to advance human rights, an issue on which he clashed with the conservatives?

Did the vote show that the supreme leader must now let Rohani run economic reforms as he wishes, or does it reflect the conservatives’ failure to field a high-caliber candidate? In the latter case, the result wasn’t a regime-system failure but a human one that can be rectified in the next election.

A supporter of newly reelected Iranian President Hassan Rohani holds a poster of him in downtown Tehran, May 20, 2017.
Behrouz Mehri / AFP

Whatever the conservatives’ explanations, the result obliges Rohani to take advantage of this second chance if he doesn’t want to end his second and last term like the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who was president from 1997 to 2005. Khatami finished his political career as a weak disappointment who paved the way for the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rohani isn’t Khatami. In his campaign, he didn’t hesitate to attack the Revolutionary Guard and his political rivals. He even hinted at flaws in the regime itself. Rohani knew how to conduct the nuclear negotiations with the powers wisely and neutralized the pressures on him during the talks.

Granted, he may have had Khamenei’s backing the whole time – the supreme leader adopted the nuclear agreement as part of his ideology – but without Rohani and his staff, the talks could have ended without an agreement.

The West is wrong to assume that everything is determined by the supreme leader and so it doesn’t matter who the Iranian president is. Every president has had his own style and worldview that he has tried to implement.

Hashemi Rafsanjani embraced free markets and laid the infrastructure for relations with Europe. Khatami, with the slogan “dialogue among civilizations,” persuaded Khamenei to freeze the nuclear program and start talks with the United States, an initiative that was sabotaged by U.S. President George W. Bush, who didn’t respond to it. Ahmadinejad showed the conservatives that a president of their own could do them more harm than good and ended his term with a wide rift with Khamenei.

An Iranian president must constantly negotiate with his country’s parliament, military and ideological and economic elites. He can form coalitions to advance his cause and must be able to look the supreme leader in the eye. Rohani has shown an impressive ability in most areas, and considering the broad support he won in the election, Khamenei is the one who has to prove he isn’t acting against the people’s will; that is, sabotaging Rohani’s initiatives.

The election results will now challenge the international community and especially Donald Trump’s United States. The nuclear agreement and the world’s relations with Iran have received another four years of consensus. This is a critical period at whose end a new Iranian president will decide if and how to extend the nuclear agreement. If signing the agreement was based mainly on the West’s willingness to believe Rohani, the next period will have to replace this faith with diplomatic and economic infrastructure that will guarantee the agreement’s extension and quell Iran’s desire to develop nuclear weapons in the future.

Now it’s the West’s and especially Europe’s turn to make Iran a diplomatic and economic partner and face up to Trump’s brutal policy that speaks in the language of sanctions. Iran will remain a suspect state and be examined under a microscope. But now that most Iranians have declared their intentions, it’s time to rethink the paradigm that has shaped the world’s policy toward the country.