Can Hassan Rouhani Win Re-Election?

Rouhani's approach to foreign affairs, his basic faith in the power of diplomacy to resolve bitter conflicts, has been discredited.

Before the U.S. elections, when Trump’s chances at ascending to the Oval Office seemed, to most liberal voters at least, a distant possibility, Iranian hardliners lined up with many of the world’s other autocrats to cheer him on. This wasn’t just a display of schadenfreude. In Iran, few hardliners, and certainly not the country’s supreme leader, have ever said a nice thing about any U.S. politician. At the heart of their enthusiasm for Trump is the knowledge that however he changes U.S. policy toward Iran as president, it’ll significantly complicate Hassan Rouhani’s hopes of winning a re-election in May.

Rouhani has led a charge to fill the country’s elective institutions with a diverse coalition of moderates that generally share his centrist values on privatization and diplomatic engagement. In elections last February, he helped oust prominent hardliners from their long-held seats in the parliament and Assembly of Experts, a clerical oversight body. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, moreover, has a personal stake in the May elections, given his interest in isolating Hashemi Rafsanjani, a longtime rival who has orchestrated Rouhani’s rise, from the locus of executive power. As one former reformist official told Reuters in July, “Hardliners want a president who is closer to their camp and gets his directions from Khamenei's allies.”

Amid this maneuvering, Trump’s electoral victory has all but sealed the legacy, if not the fate, of Rouhani’s landmark policy: the nuclear deal. Trump has promised to either renegotiate or alternately dismantle it – not that the distinction matters much. Rouhani said the day after Trump’s win that there would be “no possibility” of changing the deal. Short of a credible U.S. threat of war, it’s difficult to imagine why Rouhani would accept less favorable terms. At a minimum, Trump would have to make the trying case for why world powers should renege on their prior commitments and reimpose an international sanctions regime.

Suffice it to say, Trump may not know how to negotiate a “better” deal without losing the necessary international buy-in. The furthest his campaign staff has gone toward explaining how to wring a more exacting agreement is a garbled statement of the obvious: “He will take the agreement, review it, send it to Congress, demand from the Iranians to restore few issues or change few issues, and there will be a discussion,” Walid Phares, a top foreign policy adviser to Trump, told the BBC.

Regardless of what tack he takes in his first 100 days, Trump’s rhetoric makes it clear that he doesn’t intend on sweetening the deal for Iran. This has major implications for Rouhani’s popularity. Since the deal’s implementation in January, he has been fighting the perception that it’s failing. Rouhani justified his concessions by promising two outcomes: first, they would alleviate the threat of war against the world’s greatest military power, and second, they would inject foreign capital into the Iranian economy and reconnect it to the global marketplace.

Hardliners have already questioned this bargain, asking why Rouhani negotiated away the country’s hard-fought nuclear program for disparately little economic relief. “The public is asking: what has the nuclear deal accomplished for people’s livelihood and for the dignity of Islamic Iran?” an editorial in the country’s hardliner Kayhan newspaper asked last July, and that was when Rouhani still had a U.S. counterpart who wanted the deal to succeed as much he did. According to a poll released that same month, three-quarters of Iranians, out of a sample of 1 thousand, said they haven’t seen any economic improvement since the deal was signed.

That poll suggests the extent to which the deal hasn’t panned out for Iran. It was supposed to act as a springboard for foreign investment in Iran, a country endowed with natural resources, a robust consumer base and an unrivaled manufacturing capacity. But the gold rush never came, in large part because banks refrained from resuming commercial ties with Iran. The nuclear deal may have lifted restrictions on international trade with Iran, but it left intact a dizzying array of U.S. sanctions, which have in turn left an insurmountable compliance risk for big banks.

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