Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is near to announcing a run for a second term, is already making it clear that the campaign will be based largely on his view that the future lies in opening Iran to the outside world.
In a televised speech on Sunday – the same day on which Vice President for Parliamentary Affairs Hosseinali Amiri said Rouhani will run in the May election – Rouhani was quoted by Reuters as saying: “We are steadfast in our principles and we don’t compromise on them, but we should talk to the world, engage and cooperate with it.”
Rouhani’s political fortunes are inextricably bound with the public’s judgment on whether last year’s nuclear deal with world powers is benefiting Iranians economically. He and his allies say the answer is yes, and that it promises to reap greater benefits in the future.
Opponents argue that Rouhani and his deal have failed to improve the lot of citizens.
Rouhani hails "golden page" in Iran history as sanctions lifted
The data is mixed from Rouhani’s point of view. Inflation is down to single digits and according to the Iranian Parliamentary Research Center, growth is forecast at 6.6% for the current Iranian year, which ends on March 20. But unemployment has climbed a little over the last year and is now at 13%, according to official figures.
When the first French Airbus passenger plane arrived in Tehran last month – part of a deal in which 100 French aircraft will join Iran Air’s fleet – it was greeted with a boisterous celebration, organized by the government.
The clear message was, the lifting of sanctions and the nuclear deal are paying off.
The government also played up the increase in oil exports to 2.5 million barrels a day, a return to pre-sanctions level.
But in fact, despite a flurry of visits to Iran by executives of Western companies, there have been very few deals struck. Companies remain reluctant to reenter the Iranian market because of structural problems in the Iranian economy, such as corruption, and the uncertainty prompted by the Trump administration’s strident line towards Iran, according to Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Forum for Regional Thinking.
Zimmt believes that, despite debate over the economic situation, Rouhani at this point is in a strong position to be reelected, with most people still willing to wait to see if his approach will benefit them.
“The average Iranian still wants to see whether it was worthwhile,” he says. “The majority of Iranians were supportive of the deal and still are, because they realize the slogan of resistance economy of the hard-liners is irrelevant, and that if the Iranian economy is to improve they need European and Western investment. I think that if they don’t see an improvement in the next two years that might lead to disillusionment with the deal-I don’t think that has happened yet.”
Meir Javedanfar, who teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, also thinks Rouhani is in a strong position at the moment.
“People are disappointed that sanctions relief didn’t bring as much economic windfall as was promised, but the selection in Iran, like other countries, is between bad and worse and he seems better than many other candidates the conservatives have to offer.”
Javedanfar believes the conservative agenda remains unappealing to most Iranians. “Their thesis is based on Iran looking inside, not outside.
People in Iran want to have good relations with the world, to be able to travel freely and develop economically. People believe Iran should have more interaction with the world while conservatives believe Iran should continue challenging America and Israel.”
Rouhani seems to be the best president Israelis could expect for Iran, even though the direction for Iran’s Middle East policy comes from the Revolutionary Guard and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. “Rouhani wants Western investment and he knows anti-Israel remarks make that difficult,” Javedanfar says.
“I don’t think he likes Israel, but he wants Iran to focus more on domestic issues rather than calls for elimination of Israel or denial of the Holocaust. If it were up to him Iran would just ignore the issue of Israel.”
Rouhani is seen as having failed to pursue initial promises of greater domestic freedoms for Iranians. “He is not a liberal, he’s been cautious, he knew if he emphasized liberalization he would find himself in direct confrontation with Khamenei,” says Meir Litvak, director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. Although this has disappointed reformists, it will not hurt him at the ballot box, since they will have no choice but to support him against a conservative candidate.
The conservatives meanwhile, have yet to field a candidate, but the names that have been spoken about thus far are either people who lost previous election bids or people who lack popularity, Zimmt notes.
Another factor in Rouhani’s favor is that, since 1981, Iranian voters have always given their presidents, regardless of their orientation, a second term.
The recent death of reformist former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani is a blow to Rouhani, since he was a strong patron and supporter. But the large turnout at his funeral – estimates put the number at several hundred thousand – can be seen as a show of support for his reformist world view, says Litvak.
“Most Iranians still want more openness to the rest of the world,” Litvak says. “Thirty seven years after the revolution, people don’t want austerity and revolutionary fervor, they want a better life.”