Dina Esfandiary, Center for Strategic and Internatioanl Studies–


On May 19, 2017, Iran held presidential elections that saw incumbent President Hassan Rouhani reelected by a 57 percent majority in the first round, which saw a voter participation rate of around 70 percent. President Rouhani returns bolstered by his first-round victory and strengthened by a more reform-minded parliament that was simultaneously elected.

Despite claims to the contrary, Iran’s elections matter, and this election will affect Iran’s domestic, regional, and foreign policy.

Q1: Why do elections matter in Iran?

A1: Many have argued that Iranian presidential and parliamentary elections do not matter, and they are only intended to legitimize the regime’s hold on power. Iranian elections are not fully free and fair, since the Guardian Council’s vetting eliminates the overwhelming majority of candidates. In the 2017 presidential elections, for example, more than 1,600 individuals registered as candidates, but the Guardian Council approved only six, rejecting all of the female candidates. In addition, past elections have been marked by irregularities. Even so, once the candidates have been vetted, live presidential debates present the issues to the public, which elects their preferred candidate, much like elections everywhere else. The vetted presidential candidates have different approaches, and the president sets the tone for the Islamic Republic in the four years that follow his election.

The Islamic Republic insists on the importance of its elections, and the government even told Iranians that voting is a religious duty. Some Iranians believe that rather than legitimize the government, high turnouts send a clear message for change that cannot be ignored, especially after post-election chaos in 2009. Past boycotts have advanced conservative candidates, and many Iranians say they turn out to send a clear message that they seek reform.

Q2: What role and powers does Iran’s president have?

A2: Under the Iranian constitution, the president’s mandate is relatively limited. He directs economic policy and influences domestic affairs. Yet, his relationship with the Supreme Leader, and his ability to balance between factions in Tehran, give him influence in areas that are traditionally outside his mandate, including in foreign policy and domestic affairs.

President Rouhani demonstrated he had Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ear during the nuclear negotiations, and as a regime insider, Rouhani also proved an adept political actor. As a result, he helped bring the country out of international isolation with the 2015 nuclear deal and revived the economy. He did so at the expense of other domestic issues, including civil rights.

The Supreme Leader, who also supervises the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and their elite Quds Force, traditionally shapes foreign policy. His clout is behind Gulf Arab states’ lament that there is no point in talking to the Rouhani administration; it is not the decisionmaker in regional policy. While this point is not wholly inaccurate, Rouhani’s administration has greater influence on Iran’s regional endeavors than its predecessors.

Q3: What were the pivotal issues in this election?

A3: The 2017 elections were widely viewed as a referendum on President Rouhani’s appeals for pragmatism and moderation as well as his plans to improve the economy. During the campaign, the election debates opened the floodgates to a virulent public discussion about the state of the Iranian society and economy, including discussions on inequality, housing, and the female unemployment rate.

Conservative candidates tackled Rouhani’s track record as president, criticizing him for sustained economic weakness. Rouhani emphasized his record on reducing inflation. He also lashed out at the conservative camp for their attacks on social and political freedoms, including gender segregation. The increasingly belligerent tone of the campaign prompted Supreme Leader Khamenei to step in and call for calm.

Q4: What is the outlook for Iran’s policy toward the West?

A4: For the foreseeable future, any dialogue between the United States and Iran seems difficult. The Trump administration’s stance on Iran is likely to strengthen conservative voices in Tehran, who state that the United States cannot be trusted, and push the IRGC to be more defiant.

President Rouhani’s reelection ensures continuity in EU-Iranian dialogue, given the already strong lines of communication between the two sides. Immediately after the election results, High Representative Frederica Mogherini took to Twitter to congratulate President Rouhani. She stated that the European Union was ready to continue working on the full implementation of the Iran deal, including taking the lead on promised sanctions relief given Washington’s reticence, and ensure bilateral engagement.

Q5: What are the key domestic issues going into Rouhani’s second term?

A5: Rouhani released a plan describing his economic goals for his second term, including reforming the management of oil export revenues, containing inflation, tackling corruption, improving access to non-bank finances, boosting tourism, and funding job-growth programs—all of which impact the main challenge of unemployment. Reforming the banking sector remains a priority, including by increasing transparency and abiding by international banking regulations. The economic plan will be successful only if implemented alongside much-needed political and legal reforms.

President Rouhani has made it clear that he aims to tackle gender discrimination and other social and political freedoms. He made similar promises during his 2013 campaign but was unable to deliver following the conservative backlash after the focus on the nuclear deal and their control of other major government institutions. Today, he faces similar challenges.

Another goal of this administration is to tackle the rising strength of the IRGC. With the help of Supreme Leader Khamenei, Rouhani was able to curb criticism from the guards during the nuclear negotiations and in the aftermath of the deal. Today, he aims to continue these efforts. But he will face difficulties because the Supreme Leader does not want to destabilize the system. As a result, Rouhani will likely have to pick his battles and address the IRGC’s influence in specific areas only. Still, attacks against the president began almost immediately after his reelection and show no signs of abating. In fact, some quarters announced the creation of a “shadow government” to unify efforts and present an alternative plan for the Islamic Republic.

Dina Esfandiary is an adjunct fellow (Non-resident) with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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