Why the US should be wary about Rouhani’s reelection in Iran
© Getty Images

On May 19, an estimated 70 percent of Iranians partook in the Islamic Republic’s 12th presidential “election.” Winning 57 percent of the vote, Hassan Rouhani received a larger electoral mandate than he did in 2013. He also beat another man of the cloth — arch-hardliner Seyed Ebrahim Raisi — who had the support of the security services and was widely rumored as a potential next supreme leader. Rouhani’s victory was aided by his skillful embrace of anti-establishment and reformist rhetoric. He also benefited by being constantly billed as a “moderate” by select audiences in the West and in Iran.

But the arguments in favor of his purported “moderation” miss a larger point. Rouhani is neither a moderate nor an enigma. He is simply an exceedingly competent bureaucrat focused on security matters — a type of adversary the U.S. is most unaccustomed to dealing with in the Middle East.

Unlike his windbreaker-wearing predecessor, Rouhani is suave. His Persian is much more eloquent yet equally full of conviction. But these assets pale in comparison to his administration’s first-term accomplishments for the Islamic Republic. Reviewing them, it is easy to understand why Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did not feel inclined to rig the election in favor of Raisi: Rouhani is a competent and loyal soldier with a solid track record of carrying out the supreme leader’s orders.


ADVERTISEMENT
Backed by former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in 2013 Rouhani brought reformists and disenfranchised voters to the polls to repair the regime’s international image. As the first presidential contest since the widely disputed 2009 elections and the brutal crackdown that ensued, this was no small accomplishment. In that campaign, Rouhani promised the Iranian people he would “return respect to the Iranian passport.” His reliance on the same coalition of reformists and technocrats was instrumental to his 2017 victory. For their part, Iranian officials have already embraced the election as a marker of the government’s legitimacy and alleged popularity.

 

But even before his first term, Rouhani had begun laying the groundwork for another feather in the Islamic Republic’s cap.

In a 2011 tell-all interview with a prominent reformist newspaper, Rouhani bragged about the successes he had when negotiating with the EU-3 over Iran’s nuclear program from 2003-2005. In that interview, Rouhani revealed what would become the ultimate goal in Tehran’s nuclear diplomacy: “If foreign policy officials are able to remove this [nuclear] file from the agenda of the Security Council, we will kiss their hands.” Rouhani emphasized this goal as he campaigned in 2013. With the supreme leader publically blessing limited nuclear talks that same year, President Rouhani and his team got down to business.

In November 2013, Iran and the United Nations’s P5+1 Security Council reached an interim deal permitting the Islamic Republic to continue low-level uranium enrichment despite multiple U.N. resolutions calling for a suspension. In July 2015, the parties reached a final (albeit flawed) deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, providing Tehran with massive sanctions relief. Based on the deal’s implementation timetable, its restrictions on uranium enrichment are slated to lapse by 2025.

By design, that is when “the UN Security Council would no longer be seized of the Iran nuclear issue,” and the file would return to the International Atomic Energy Agency to be treated like a “normal” nuclear program.

Point, Rouhani.

Since the deal, Rouhani and his team have helped articulate and implement a winning strategy that the supreme leader — despite his suspicion of the West — appears to have backed: pointing a finger at the U.S. for failing to provide sufficient sanctions relief. While former Treasury Department official Adam Szubin described the deal as “an international arrangement, not a cashier’s check,” the Rouhani team unceasingly claims it needs continuing economic concessions to keep the accord. This policy will almost certainly stay in place during Rouhani’s second term, with an added emphasis on dividing the P5+1 along Trans-Atlantic lines.

The Rouhani government has also furnished a “friendly face” for the Islamic Republic to deflect legitimate international criticism. Although the president does not legally control the country’s most sensitive military and security portfolios, his office is crucial to the success of any public diplomacy campaign that Iran undertakes. Since 2013, Rouhani and his cabinet have used the bully pulpit and social media to soften the image of the world’s main state sponsor of terror. This has permitted Tehran to continue engaging in destabilizing activities — such as deploying Shiite militias into the Syrian conflict and firing up to 14 ballistic missiles since mid-2015 — with little international admonishment.

Admittedly, Rouhani will face challenges that he will be unable to meet alone. For instance, late in the third presidential debate, Rouhani promised that he would seek the removal of Iran’s remaining “non-nuclear sanctions.” For that to happen, of course, fundamental shifts in Iran’s foreign and security policy would have to take place — all of which would be decided well away from the president’s office. Whatever the decision, Rouhani has once again elevated the expectations of the Iranians who voted for him.

With the reelection of Rouhani, the Islamic Republic has signaled that despite being a revolutionary regime, in certain instances — like presidential elections — it prefers stasis over change. After all, elections are times in Iran where the government briefly loosens its grip on society. But now that election season is over, Rouhani and the rest of the regime will reassert their objectives at home and abroad.

The U.S. will most likely regret Rouhani’s reelection, sooner rather than later.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit think tank focusing on foreign policy and national security.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.