Re-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a televised speech in Tehran, capital of Iran on May 20, 2017. Picture by Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.There is an old debate in Iranian politics, about who is controlling who – is the government controlling the people or are the people controlling the government? Following the presidential elections in Iran on May 19th, there have been various analyses and articles, aiming to show the significance of the elections and Rouhani’s win. What such analyses often tend to overlook, however, is the different attitudes Iranian people take towards the election and the results. Even among those who voted for Rouhani, there is disagreement about how hopeful and content one should be with the win, as well as about what lies ahead.
Attempting to fill this gap in the analyses, we offer two different personal views on the elections, one more hopeful and one more pessimistic. We both supported Rouhani in the elections (one more reluctantly than the other), but we have different outlooks on what this win means and what lies ahead for Iran.
I witnessed a snowball forming in the run-up to the presidential elections in Iran. As someone who has been outside of Iran for years, I only have access to the behaviors of people online, on social media. In the weeks before the elections, I could sense a feeling of hope coming to the foreground, in the way friends and family were speaking about the election: ‘this is our chance’ they would say. These feelings grew more and more as the election day got closer.
The emergence of hope, on this scale, was both surprising and heart-warming. Since 2009, the majority of people in Iran – right or wrong – felt a loss together: the loss of not just the presidential race, but hope in change. The lived experience of the loss, gave a large group of Iranians something they shared with one another, something to fight for, and something concrete to demand, following the house arrest of Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, the favorites to win the elections in 2009. It was this shared experience, which this time around, was acting as a mobilising force for a large part of the population, regardless of their faith, gender, and social strata. And it was these people who ultimately made Rouhani the winner. One of the signs of this mobilisation being rooted in the experience of the loss people felt back in 2009, was for me the demands people were making. Nine years on, the chants that dominated Rouhani’s rallies across Iran, were the same: “our message is clear, house arrest must end”.
This uniting force among the people, and the continuation of a united message is telling. To me it shows that Iranians are learning – learning to demand, not just through scattered protests and occasional outbursts, but through conversation and at the ballot box. They have accepted, it seems to me, that the route to real, sustainable change, goes through the people and their demands of the government, not the other way around. They cannot change those at the top and hope that change would trickle down, but that they have to make the change, they have to demand their rights, and stand by their decisions.
Without downplaying the structural and external problems Iran faces today, what I have seen of the Iranian people in the last few months, leads me to think that, realising their power, people are transforming their feelings of loss and injustice, into feelings of hope for a future that they alone can build. Time goes by and the states will inevitably find an answer to the problems, however, it is through the forceful demands of the people and through the voices of concern of the majority, provided they are heard and recognized, that the direction of these proposed solutions is determined. On election day, Iranians showed that they understand their role in determining their country’s and their own future. They showed that they are learning democracy, and they showed that it is them who can, and must, mould the government to meet their demands, and not vice-versa.
I was just 14 when Khatami became president and the very idea of reform started in Iran. It was a special moment, not just for me, but for all the young people like me who were made hopeful about change in Iran. In 2003, almost 8 years after Khatami’s first election, I was a politics student and among the protesters when Khatami attended the Student Day (16 Azar) Ceremony at the University of Tehran. We were protesting because we thought Khatami was unable to bring the change he had promised after two terms of presidency. Students were frustrated and Khatami was also angry. In response to the protests Khatami resentfully said: “You will see who will become president after me and what the situation will become then”.
After 13 years, I think both the protesters and Khatami were right. As Khatami anticipated, after him, Ahmadinejad became president and we witnessed one of the most disastrous times of our life. Angry protesters also had a point. He had lost the chance to make tangible, sustainable, structural changes. Although I believe that without hope and active participation in politics, expected change is impossible, I also think the structural problems in the system are limiting, not just for Khatami or Rouhani, but for any president who promises change. It is because of such structural problems that I think understanding Iranian politics based on the 2009 election or the Conservative-Moderate dichotomy is too reductionist, as we had assumed 13 years ago. Raising people’s hopes without emphasising the structural problems, which are exactly the cause of failure in Khatami’s reform project is dishonest.
An example of the kind of structural problems I have in mind, is in the Iranian economy. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an institution under the support and supervision of Ayatollah Khamenei, are thought to control about one third of Iran's economy through subsidiaries and trusts, whilst the religious foundations (Bonyads), also under direct control of Khamenei, control over 20% of the GDP. Such vast shares of the economy out of the control of the executive branch, means any elected president would have limited access to economic sources to bring the change promised during campaigns. Adding the widespread corruption and lack of accountability of economic entities raises the question: how much hope for a successful reform programme in the next four years is reality and how much is just a delusion? The same questions arise in talking about the power of executive branch in major foreign policy crises that Iran faces now, such as the Syrian civil war and relations with the US.
Added to these problems, is the vacuum in the political space created by the absence of different social, ethnic, religious and gender groups’ representatives in Iranian politics. This vacuum is threatening to the hopes of people like me for a democratic and accountable government in Iran. Without different representatives, the hopeful discourse adopted in the election campaigns by moderates and reformists becomes hollow, as there would be nobody to hold them accountable in the course of their presidency.
Now, I think we are facing another opportunity in Iran and I don’t want to see another defeat in my life again! So we need to have a realistic picture of what is going on in Iran without exaggeration in hope of what can be feasibly achieved.
A false dilemma
It seems to us that the old question of metamorphosis between the government and the people, is outdated and fails to offer a real insight into Iran’s current politics, by creating a false dilemma. The matter is far more complex to be reduced to a single question and answer.
Having said that, we both agree that compared to other countries in the region, Iran has a middle-class population that tries to portray itself as influential in the political changes in the country and in providing hope for its future. At the same time, unless Rouhani’s government, as well as moderates and reformists in general manage to make tangible changes that would appeal not only to the ever-shrinking middle class, but to everyone in Iranian society, maintaining the hope for change would be immensely difficult.
Because of the nature of liberal economic development, which inevitably hits the lower income populations, lack of tangible change especially for the 7% of Iranians who boosted Rouhani’s win this time, could lead to a real possibility that in four years time, in the next presidential elections, the union between the different classes could be lost. This loss would be another blow to the moderate/reformist movements in Iran, and this time it could be irreversible.