In the final days of the presidential campaign, various international media reports had indicated that Rouhani had re-fashioned himself in the image of a reformist, as part of an effort to overcome voter apathy in the wake of a first term that led to no significant change in the domestic situation. Meanwhile, the opposition group known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran organized a boycott of the polls in order to draw attention to the natural lack of progress under “reformist” presidents who serve the clerical regime.
According to Reuters, Rouhani “appeared to openly defy conservative judges” in his victory speech by referencing the former President Mohammad Khatami, whose image and name have been banned from Iranian media. The report went on to say that Rouhani seemed to be taking up the mantel of his “dear brother” Khatami, although it also acknowledged that Khatami failed to deliver on a declared reform agenda during his two terms in office, much as Rouhani has failed to do throughout his first.
Also according to Reuters, Rouhani said near the end of his reelection campaign that he would see to the release of the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, if he received a “stronger mandate” from the voters. Rouhani’s leading hardline challenger, Ebrahim Raisi, reportedly received 38 percent of the vote. Government authorities claim that 70 percent of eligible voters went to the polls on Friday, but this figure has been disputed by groups like the PMOI, which point to images of empty polling places and accounts of government-backed fraud in order to claim that the electoral boycott was more successful than official reports indicate.
Even among those reform-minded civilians who did participate in the electoral process, many have been quoted as saying that they were less interested in providing Rouhani with a “stronger mandate” than they were with stopping the possible election of Raisi, who is regarded as a radical representative of the security state and who played a leading role in the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners, most of whom were members or affiliates of the PMOI.
This being the case, it seems likely that there is little expectation that Rouhani will deliver on his promises, even if he does indeed hold the mandate that he claims to. Promises such as the release of Mousavi and Karroubi had already been made during his campaign for his first term, but have not been followed up upon, and there is little evidence that the political situation has changed in the wake of his widely anticipated reelection.
Regardless of Rouhani’s intentions, the essential focus of the PMOI boycott was to protest the fact that the will of the people is necessarily subordinated to the will of the clerical establishment under the existing system. On the day of the election, Forbes ran an editorial by Mohammad Mohaddessin, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, calling attention to this fact. The NCRI is the Paris-based coalition which maintains the PMOI as its main constituent group.
The article emphasized that the Iranian president is “not a decision maker,” regardless of his political identity. Mohaddessin said that in a system where “the supreme leader can overrule the vote of the entire population” the electoral process is merely used to “paint a democratic picture of its tyrannical rule.” And even though the powers of the president are limited under that system, the unelected Guardian Council bars any candidate from standing for election who has not shown loyalty to the supreme leader and the underlying theocratic system.
Under such a system, the hardline supreme leader may have a favored candidate but would have little concern about the election of the alternative. In the run-up to the recent election, Khamenei had declared no explicit preference but had continued expressing skepticism about Rouhani’s record and the sole presidential accomplishment that might be regarded as a shift away from the familiar: the president’s successful pursuit of a nuclear agreement with foreign powers.
According to Al Monitor, Khamenei did not congratulate Rouhani on his reelection, but did give thanks and praise to the public for supposedly voting in historically large numbers. Meanwhile, other hardline figures indicating that their voices would continue to have a substantial influence on policy matters in the Islamic Republic, regardless of Rouhani’s reform-minded promises and the apparent public embrace of them.
The Al Monitor report went on to make it clear that hardline institutions would not sit back and allow political change to take place, just as they had not done four years ago. And these institutions include not only the majority conservative parliament and unelected positions of authority like the supreme leadership and the guardian council, but also the Iranian state media and the paramilitary Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which wields tremendous power over the security state while also controlling a majority of the country’s gross domestic product.
The IRGC is evidently responsible for some of the worst consequences of bad governance in the Islamic Republic, and there is little reason to believe that Rouhani will be any more capable of or willing to counteract that situation than he was during his first term or any of his predecessors were during their own two-term presidencies. The Tower explained in a recent report that the IRGC is largely responsible for the ongoing Iranian water crisis, which is the worst such man-made crisis in any industrialized nation. The IRGC’s culpability stems partly from its intercession with the government to secure excessive numbers of damming projects for its commercial enterprises, and partly from its suppression of public outcry and activism any time the affected peoples responded to this situation.
The suppression of public voices is a perennial feature of the Islamic Republic, and it was particularly evident in the run-up to last week’s election, when numerous reformist commentators and activists were arrested or intimidated by hardline authorities. Just before the election took place, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that 29 members of the European Parliament had signed a statement calling on Tehran to halt this crackdown. Rouhani himself had eventually spoken out in response to the relevant reports, yet his administration proved either unable or unwilling to take steps to curtail the security activities.
In addition to this sort of direct intimidation, the IRGC also retains considerable power to shape public narratives, partly through its well-known direct influence on semi-official media outlets and partly through a program of cultural manipulation. In a report on some of the most “bizarre” events it this year’s election campaign, IranWire pointed to the role played by an Iranian rhythm and blues singer known as Amir Tataloo, who became an unlikely intermediary for the IRGC, in order to help it evade laws barring the military establishment from exerting direct influence over elections.
This sort of shaping of public narratives is certainly challenged by reform-minded civilians, but this challenge is channeled through far less official channels, as was also pointed out in the IranWire report. The internet and social media, particularly the Telegram messaging app, went a long way toward filling that role and even kept alive the public dialogue about Raisi’s role in the 1988 massacre. However, neither this nor any seriously challenging topic was raised by the candidates themselves, and certainly not by Rouhani. This fact encourages the conclusion that the public interest is still not communicated through traditional politics but rather through unofficial activities like the PMOI boycott of the election.