Middle East analyst Ehsan Abdoh Tabrizi says that while Iran President Hassan Rouhani remains limited in impacting the country’s foreign policy, his landslide re-election gives him a significant opportunity for domestic reforms
AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been re-elected in a landslide victory. The vote saw a record turnout of close to 70%. Rouhani represents the moderate and reformist branch of the Iranian establishment, which seeks greater Western engagement. He defeated Ebrahim Raisi, who is close to Iran’s ruling clerics. Rouhani oversaw the 2015 nuclear deal and now says he’ll focus on Iran rejoining the global economy. Joining me is Ehsan Abdoh-Tabrizi, researcher and analyst focused on the Middle East. Ehsan, welcome. EHSAN TABRIZI: Thanks for having me. AARON MATE: As I mentioned, this was a huge turnout, close to 70%. Does this give Rouhani a greater mandate than he had before? EHSAN TABRIZI: I would say it’s made wonders for Rouhani and it surprised many, who didn’t thought he would come. He himself, I don’t think, thought that he would have, first of all, such a great challenge and, second of all, he wanted a big mandate like this. He’s certainly got it now, but it wasn’t something that he actually bargained for at the beginning. AARON MATE: One thing that was unusual was that Rouhani called supporters of his opponent Raisi extremists. That seemed different for a presidential campaign in Iran. Am I right on that? EHSAN TABRIZI: You’re definitely right on that. Right now, the main schism or the main difference, the main factions, within the Islamic Republic are two separate ways of thinking more. One side is basically the hardliners or the extremists. What they want is, in the international affair, a hawkish, fire-brandish revolutionary policy, if we can call rabble-rousing like that and creating problems all over the regions, of course, contributing to the problems all over the region, revolutionary. Then they want certain kind of a populism at home and basically they don’t like, let’s say, they are anti-good governance in certain aspects. The second kind of a faction that we have right now which has so many different branches are basically pragmatists. These are the people who say that there is a world outside that we have to engage and we don’t have to and should not challenge them and try to challenge every status quo that we came across, try to be in the America’s face every chance we get. They want also good governance at home, although both sides have economic corruption to certain extent. One side is basically trying to focus into running the country in a normal, peaceful way while the other one looks to, let’s just say, exports its hardcore ideology outside while strengthens it inside the country. AARON MATE: What does Rouhani’s victory over Raisi, who was seen as a protégé and a favorite of the ruling clerics, say about the clerics’ power? There was some concern before the vote that the Supreme Leader might even rig the election in favor of his preferred candidate. EHSAN TABRIZI: I was one of those who was worried about this, certainly after the fiasco of 2009 election, but, for reason that we don’t have time to go into, this didn’t took place. But Rouhani made a point about this in his last pre-election speech to warn the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC, and the Islamic militia, the Basij, about this, asking them politely but firmly not to intervene in the process of election or, let’s just say, on the counting of the votes of the election. This was very serious threat which fortunately did not come to pass. Now Raisi is, by some media, they have talked of him of conservative or ultra-conservative. This is not exactly a very good thing. Raisi is a functionary of Iran’s deep state. He has been into, let’s say, judicial semi-security position for over 40 years, since he was 19. This man is basically a judicial or, let’s say, extra-judicial killer in some senses, because he had a considerable role to play in Iran’s 1988 massacre of political prisoners. Of course, a lot of time has passed for that and thankfully in Iran they cannot do that to political prisoners anymore, but this is quite a grim, notorious reputation, so many people came in to vote just to make sure that such a man, apparently as you said a protégé of the Supreme Leader, do not get the helm of the presidency. AARON MATE: Let’s talk about what President Rouhani can do with his mandate. The criticism that we hear of Iran is that the powers of the president are limited because the big decisions are ultimately made by the Supreme Leader. What’s your take on that? EHSAN TABRIZI: Well, that is partially true but Iran’s system and the way the power floats in Iran is very fluid. Let’s just say that a determined president with a big popular mandate can be a great tool in the way of the Supreme Leader, but he’s on a knife-edge, basically. What Rouhani can do right now is to open up and that is what now he is partially committed to is to make sure that he strengthens the civil society inside Iran and also he has to, in certain way, take on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and the deep state because, in certain level, he has had a big fall-out with them during this election. Outside Iran what he can do is quite limited in the foreign policy but he can have a positive effect, especially with the relations with European countries and he can cool things down. He can make the rhetoric and make the situation less tenser in the diplomacy while, inside Iran, he can actually help bring about more openness and the growth of civil society in Iran which has been under attack for the past 12 years. AARON MATE: On that point, Rouhani said that he needed a strong mandate to help free the opposition leaders that have been under arrest or house arrest since the Green Movement in 2009. Do you think that will actually happen? EHSAN TABRIZI: He had a conference today with the press and he was asked about this. He was a bit evasive but he said that he felt that there is an injustice happening there. So what I would interpret that is that he moves slowly but surely to arrange the release of the house arrest that is going on right now of the two main leaders of that movement, Mr Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mr Mehdi Karroubi. The question that will he be successful or not is an entirely different matter. AARON MATE: Finally, Ehsan, let’s talk about President Trump’s comments in Saudi Arabia. He singled out Iran as a supporter of terrorism. What is the mood right now among Iranians looking at President Trump forging a closer alliance with Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and, while saying he’ll respect the nuclear deal, making some very bellicose statements about the Iranian government. How should the recent US moves towards Iran be viewed? EHSAN TABRIZI: As what Iranian thinks about it, the response from Iran is a bit of outrage, bit of a comic relief, because they say that the Iranians are very good at satire and seeing irony. They say that Mr Trump is in Saudi Arabia about democracy, that’s a contradiction in terms, basically or about Iran being a terrorist while the ideology which has created non-state players like Islamic State or Al-Qaeda are too close to the ideology of the Saudi Arabian ruling regime. So Iranians are partially outraged, partially amused by this but what’s President Rouhani’s said about it, he tried to brush it off and that’s his main difference with Mr Raisi on this. Mr Raisi said that, “You should be hawkish, you should go and talk with them very heavily,” while Mr Rouhani told them, “How do you want to talk with the world? You cannot even talk to your own people.” So Mr Rouhani tried to brush off what President Trump said by saying that Mr Trump is new and it will take time for him to make his mind about what his foreign policy can be. I would say that, after so much of a provocative speech Mr Trump made, Mr Rouhani very advisedly did not made fire-brand respond to that. That will be helpful. AARON MATE: Ehsan Abdoh-Tabrizi, a researcher and analyst focused on the Middle East, thank you. EHSAN TABRIZI: Thanks for having me. AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.