Iran’s presidential election: Freedom allies within an authoritarian contract On Hassan Rouhani’s landslide victory for Iran’s reformists

Presidential elections in Iran have been about much more than a political ballot since Mohammad Khatami’s landslide victory in 1997, they have become a means of resisting political and religious authoritarianism.

Iran’s most recent election, on May 19, in which Hassan Rouhani won a second term with 23.5 million votes, against his rival Ebrahim Raisi’s 15.8 million, gives the reform agenda a strong platform to challenge the nation’s hardliners.

The principlists exchanged their principals for power in the eyes of many Iranians. 

High levels of participation, particularly among women, indicate the general desire for a freer and fairer society. “Freedom,” a taboo word rarely spoken by officials since the early days of the revolution, leapt suddenly out of Rouhani’s mouth during his recent campaign.  This magic word seemed to become the mantra for his attacks on the principlists.

“Principlists,” or Iranian conservatives, are one of 2 main political camps in post-revolutionary Iran, the other being the “reformists.”

“Our way is the way of freedom,” and, “We will never stop on our way to freedom,” promised Rouhani, who seemingly discovered the miraculous power of the word before millions of Iranians who have been systematically assaulted by the populist propaganda of the principlists.

In the eyes of a majority of Iranians, the principlists exchanged their principals for power. This is the reason they failed, once again, despite all the quotas and logistical support they received from the hard power centers of the Islamic Republic, particularly The Islamic Republic Guardian Corps (IRGC) and the Guardian Council.  

The question is whether Rouhani is actually committed to freedom and a freer society, or if his promises were void gestures to buy him more votes. And, what will Iran look like after his second term?

Rouhani’s aggressive rhetoric makes sense in a context of factional conflict, and his emphasis on freedom seems to be targeted at dissident citizens as potential allies for future conflicts. But, is his government capable of dealing with the contradictions between government and society within Iran’s hegemonic authoritarianism?

He will also have to deal with regional and international challenges, including the rising threat of the dangerous triad of Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Such challenges will require social inclusion and participatory polity.

Freedom allies

Rouhani became president in 2013, as Iran was on the edge of a political and economic crisis after eight years of Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic government. As a result, he committed himself to trying to repair the state apparatus during his first term, and to the removal of international sanctions on the country’s nuclear ambitions. This left him with little time for international affairs, despite basing his agenda for economic improvement on foreign investment and the success of the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

JCPOA is the 2015 agreement between the US, Europe and Iran, which committed Iran to suspending nuclear proliferation in return for the suspension of international sanctions.  

The sanctions were crippling because they targeted Iran’s oil economy, which the country heavily depends on. Even after the sanctions were suspended in 2015, lower-income stratas of Iranian society did not receive any tangible economic benefits from the nuclear deal due to critical shortages in the state’s revenues. As a result, strikes and protests by workers and teachers followed, demanding better wages and conditions. Rouhani’s first term was also marked by a number of inherited structural malaises, such as corruption and unemployment, particularly for women.

It is unlikely things will get better during his second term, or that ordinary people will see any meaningful benefits from the promised foreign investment and nuclear deal.

Iran’s nuclear deal was finalized after the IRGC realized the devastating consequences of international sanctions and agreed to negotiate. At the time, Rouhani enjoyed the conditional support of the principlists, who needed oil revenues to survive. But this required compromise, as the principlists and IRGC are not primarily concerned with things like unemployment, migration or social discrimination, but with preserving power by all means, even if this means making allies with Iran’s enemies.

Rouhani’s second term is likely to antagonize the principlists further, which will have an impact on foreign investment. As a result, his efforts to win the support of ordinary Iranians could be more than a void gesture. But the authoritarian context in which Rouhani’s government must operate cannot be overlooked.

The authoritarian contract

The authoritarian contract is a deal between selected sections of society and an authoritarian government that is able to buy the loyalty of its subjects via the redistribution of rent payments and promises of security. Oil rent, for instance, allows the government to buy the loyalty of its citizens in return for welfare and security.

The rise of extremism and insecurity in the region has contributed significantly to the justification of the authoritarian contract.

The Green Movement in Iran erupted in 2009 in response to authoritarianism, fraud, corruption, oppression and discrimination. Yet, as with Egypt’s January 2011 Revolution, and similar movements in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Libya and Syria, the result was not democratic rule, but authoritarian contracts. The desire for better conditions among the middle and lower classes, damaged by Ahmadinejad’s arbitrary rule, motivated them to vote for Rouhani as a potential savior.

Authoritarianism is based on fear — it requires the desire of citizens to trade their imaginations of a better future and their freedoms for promises of security. It also requires forging allies with those in society who are willing to accept this pay-off.

This meant the majority of Iranians were silent about Iran’s foreign policies, particularly the nation’s involvement in wars in Syria and Yemen, and they also accepted a decline in political protests since 2013.

In 2017, with the principlists representing war, insecurity, fear and chaos, Rouhani and his allies represented peace, security, welfare and happiness. While it is true that Rouhani’s approach is generally more pacifist than his rival principlists, his policies cannot be explained this simply.    

Authoritarianism requires citizens to trade their imaginations of a better future and their freedoms for promises of security.

So far it is clear that the authoritarian contract is inadequate to deal with internal, regional and international challenges. The same conditions which were required for the consolidation of power and construction of the authoritarian contract in 2013 now necessitate a more inclusive approach.

But the contradictions in Rouhani’s policies are not particular to him, they lie at the heart of all post-revolutionary politics, and commonly result in citizens being discriminated against based on gender, class and religion. The ability of states to renew their authoritarian contracts with citizens through fear and insecurity has to be taken into consideration.

As a result, for those concerned with the authoritarian contract and its devastating consequences, elections were perceived in Iran not only as a way to ally with the reformists, but as an opportunity to empower sections of society to build a third way beyond the reformists and principlists.

The content and shape of this third way are yet to be seen, but would likely entail the reclaiming of republicanism as the main feature of the Iranian revolution of 1979, which has been vastly marginalized and reduced to Islamization and neo-liberalization in Iran’s post-revolutionary policies.

Fatemeh Sadeghi 

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