Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Iran waits for greetings

Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani won a landslide victory in last week’s Iranian presidential elections, writes Camelia Entekhabifard

Supporters of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani gather as they celebrate his victory in the presidential election in Tehran
Supporters of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani gather as they celebrate his victory in the presidential election in Tehran

Despite the cash and subsidies promised by conservative presidential elections candidate Ibrahim Raisi in last week’s elections in Iran, tapping into a main concern of a nation where some one-third of the population lives in poverty, Raisi lost the race to incumbent President Hassan Rouhani who now goes on to serve a second term.

In a tight competition, a competition between life and death, Rouhani, a moderate and semi-reformist, won the elections in a landmark victory.

Unemployment and the economy were at the centre of the debate, but it was the foreign policy and moderate policy of Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif that the Iranian public wanted to see continue.

Happy with the outcome of the nuclear deal with the West and the normalisation of relations, Rouhani’s foreign policy achievements were a good enough reason for most Iranians to feel his policy should continue and be allowed to make improvements.

The fear of confrontation with the West was a daily nightmare for many Iranians five years ago when Rouhani was first elected the country’s president. When the tension rose over Iran’s nuclear programme and the talks with the West fell apart, raising tensions in the region, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that he could not sleep out of fears of a possible attack on Iran.

The nuclear deal saved Iran, and a new chapter opened in the country’s foreign policy when Rouhani was elected to office. While the nuclear deal so far has not led to as many improvements as the public may have expected, improvements will be gradual since the sanctions imposed on the country over the years have deeply damaged its infrastructure.

However, while he has been waiting to receive congratulatory messages on his electoral victory, Rouhani thus far has been cold-shouldered by most of Iran’s Arab neighbours.

US President Donald Trump on his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia to discuss the fight against terrorism disappointed millions of Iranians with his hostile comments on Iran and his failure to congratulate Rouhani.

Iran’s regional activities in Iraq and Syria and its support for radical groups like Hizbullah and Hamas are what make the Arab nations and the United States angry. While diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh broke apart in January 2016, they have since worsened as the Saudis feel there is no need for Iran’s cooperation if the United States is supporting them in the region.

In Iran, the majority who voted for Rouhani are not happy with the way the country’s hardliners are working in the region and the money that is being spent on Iran’s policies in Syria and Iraq.

The Iranians re-elected Rouhani to tackle the issues that are important to the majority of the population, such as improving the economy and opening the country to the world and portraying a better image of the nation.

During the presidential elections campaign, Rouhani frequently challenged his rivals over the attacks against Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran as a sign that his government does not approve of such behaviour.

Since he is apparently not interested in creating tensions and carrying out adventures in the region, the Iranian public is willing to give him the opportunity to serve a second term. Iran can perhaps reform and make changes as a result of the ballot box in the same way as other nations.

Many Iranians happy at Rouhani’s win have been frustrated by the speech made by King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Trump at the Riyadh Summit that singled out Iran as a source of terrorism in the region.

What politicians say and the way they act are often different, however, and from Trump’s speech in Riyadh on 21 May each Muslim and Arab nation can take whatever message it chooses to hear.

What Iranians like to highlight from the speech was the part in which Trump tells the Arab leaders to “drive them out… drive them out of your holy land,” in a reference to terrorists.

Iran’s willingness to normalise diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and pursue regional cooperation may have faded with the Riyadh Summit. However, the landmark victory of Rouhani in the elections will improve Iran’s image and give him the upper hand in confronting the hardliners in Iran.

Yet, there is little doubt that Rouhani will face a challenging and difficult time during his next term in office in addressing the regional issues that are a main concern of his neighbours and dealing with the United States.

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