President Rouhani defeated a reactionary challenger and made Donald Trump look belligerent, Kim Sengupta reports from Tehran

It was the measured reaction to Donald Trump’s expected attack on Iran while in Riyadh which reflected the growing confidence and new-found sophistication of Hassan Rouhani’s government in Tehran.

Iran, charged the US President in a rambling speech, ‘funds arms, trains militias that spread destruction and chaos’. Iranians had ‘endured hardship and despair under their leaders’ reckless pursuit of conflict and terror’. Before railing at Tehran, Mr Trump had signed a $110 billion arms deal with his Saudi hosts and very publicly pressed the Emirs of Qatar and Kuwait to buy more American weapons.

In the response from Iran, there was no invective about the ‘Great Satan’or ‘Godless America’. Instead the reformist President Rouhani, re-elected with a massive majority by an Iranian people supposedly enduring ‘hardship and despair’, observed:‘American foreign policy has been rather confusing since [Trump] came to power. We wait for it to be clearer.’ The Saudi arms purchase, he offered, was perhaps a form offinancial compensation for the 9/11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.

Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, continued the 9/11 theme, drily suggesting the US President should spend his time in Riyadh usefully by discussing with his hosts how to avoid another such atrocity. After all, he pointed out, Trump had himself suggested not so long ago that the Saudi authorities might have been responsible for the attacks.

Mohammad Hashemi Rafsanjani – a leading member of Iranian parliament’s Expediency Council, and brother of the late former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – provocatively suggested that the Saudi royal family should be careful where the weapons might eventually end up. ‘We have seen it all before,’ he said. ‘The Saudis are spending billions on arms which they don’t have the capacity to absorb. At the same time they are facing rebellion at home,[which] they are trying to hide, and a costly war in Yemen.

Before railing at Tehran, Mr Trump had signed a $110 billion arms deal with his Saudi hosts

‘The Shah of Iran , too, spent billions of dollars buying arms from America, he too had capacity problems. We had 65,000 Americans in Iran, most of them in the armed forces. But then came the revolution, and the weapons were used against him and his regime.’

Rouhani and his camp were not so relaxed during Iran’s electioncampaign, when there was genuine apprehension that Trump’s bellicose statements would help the hardline challenger, Ebrahim Raisi. The US leader had declared during his ownelection campaign that the nuclear deal Iran had signed with international powers was the ‘the worst in history’ and that he was determined to ‘dismantle this disastrous mistake’.

Significant numbers turned out on polling day to ensure Rouhani’s hardline rival, Ebrahim Raisi, did not become leader
Significant numbers turned out on polling day to ensure Rouhani’s hardline rival, Ebrahim Raisi, did not become leader

The messages from his administration since then have been contradictory and confusing. It acknowledges, albeit grudgingly, that Iran is abiding by the terms of the deal, yet is now threatening punitive measures. Trump has said that the Iranians ‘are not living up to the spirit of the agreement’, while failing to explain what this means. But his administration is carrying out what he calls a ‘comprehensive review of Iran policy’.

The rhetoric played into the hands of Raisi and the conservatives, who had constantly held that the West, and the US, could not be trusted, that the nuclear agreement had failed to bring the promised economic bonanza and that Rouhani had compromised the nation’s defences for little in return.

Trump’s administration is carrying out what he calls a ‘comprehensive review of Iran policy’

This was a matter of concern for the reformists. It was true that not allsanctions had been lifted following the agreement – the US, indeed, had imposed new ones unilaterally. Educated young people, Rouhani supporters whose votes had handed the reformists victory in last year’s parliamentary elections, and the rural poor, who had voted for Rouhani in the past but were more natural supporters of Raisi, had both seen their expectations largely unfulfilled.

A late surge in support for Raisi narrowed the margin. It was a sign of the rising tension that President Rouhani felt he had to warn the powerful Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia not to tamper with the result, as they were accused of having done to put his predecessor, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, in power. Months of violent protests followed the installation of Ahmadinejad a dozen years ago, leaving the country polarised. Deep divisions and grievances continue to this day.

But Rouhani’s support in the cities stuck with him. His campaign team had stressed that getting the vote out would be the key, and significant numbers turned outon polling day did so to ensure that someone like Raisi did not become Iran’s leader. It was not just because of his past – the hardliners’ candidate was once a judge in the ‘death commissions’ which sent thousands of political prisoners to the gallows and firing squads. It was what Raisi would have meant for the future which worried voters like Navid Karimi.

As a 23-year-old Karimi had backed the liberals in the parliamentary elections, hoping for better times, but he had failed to get a job, despite having a good engineering degree. Like many his age, he was frustrated with the Rouhani government, but Raisi was not the answer.

‘He is talking like Ahmedinejad, who came along saying that he would clean up corruption and look after the poor,’ said Karimi. ‘But my father warned me, don’t even think of voting for Raisi. Remember what happened with Ahmedinejad. No, I am sticking with Rouhani.’ One of his friends, Hassan Tabrisi, waiting with him in the polling queue, nodded. ’Ahmadinejad set us back 20, 30 years. We are only just beginning to get over him.’

Alarm at the prospect of a victory by the hardliners had led to a late citizens’ campaign to get out the vote. ‘We asked people who didn’t want to vote, “Please, you must, it is so important,” and we mostly succeeded,’ said Malihe Afroozifar, a 34-year-old engineer.

‘We could not let Raisi win because people couldn’t be bothered to vote. We need to defend the reforms, we need to defend the nuclear agreement. It may not have achieved everything we wanted quickly, but there have been positive effects in fields like where I work, oil and gas. We can only now hope for the right result. If that doesn’t happen? Well, many of us will think of leaving the country.’

There was no need for exile. Rouhani won by57 per cent of the vote to 38 per cent on an exceptionally large turnout of 70 per cent. Over 41 million voted. The day the results were announced the re-elected president pledged reforms at home and reconciliation abroad. He praised the young, academics, students, journalists and activists for protecting democracy – the very people who have suffered under previous authoritarian theocratic governments.

Rouhani also praised the reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami,breaking the ban on mentioning his name or even showing photographs of him in public. It was a very deliberate gesture by a leader armed with a strong new mandate, but one remembers how President Khatami’s own reforms were sabotaged by the forces of reaction. Though liberals feel optimistic for the moment, the reactionaries remain strong in Iran.

Kim Sengupta is the Defence and Diplomatic Editor of The Independent

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