With polls showing his campaign in trouble, in the last two weeks of the campaign Rouhani reinvented himself as a full-fledged reformist. During the debates and at large rallies, he spoke openly about alleged corruption at the highest levels, involving multi-billion dollars deals with the Revolutionary Guards. He chastised the country’s powerful judiciary, and by implication, its titular head, the supreme leader, for failing to prosecute such blatant cases of corruption. He accused his conservative rival, Ebrahim Raisi, of “having done nothing other trials and executions,” of unjustly prosecuting fellow clerics, and, most controversially, of ordering mass execution of political prisoners in 1988—referring to a purge ordered by the Revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini—an embarrassing public acknowledgement of human-rights abuses and an indictment of the ruling order, coming from the country’s sitting president.
Rouhani was explicit in addressing demands for political and cultural freedoms, even talking of freeing popular leaders of the Green Movement who have languished under house arrest since 2009. At his rallies, he surrounded himself with reformist leaders and activists who addressed large crowds about fundamental reforms, and openly criticized the security establishment and its human-rights violations. In a direct challenge to conservatives, he took a group of artists and singers to a rally in the city of Mashad, Raisi’s base. Some of those who sang at his rally had been banned from performing only weeks before by the city’s clerics.
Now, Rouhani has changed the dynamics of Iranian politics by openly speaking truth to power and legitimating public criticism of the institutions and leaders of the Islamic Republic. He jolted the Iranian electorate across the political spectrum, and persuaded cynical Iranians to vote. Most importantly, he revived the Green Movement that security forces have suppressed for close to a decade at great cost. This was a risky maneuver, which could have provoked the supreme leader. But the reaction did not come, emboldening Iranians daring to hope. Rouhani triumphed when he made it clear that he is no longer merely the moderate bridge between hardline conservatives and eager reformists.
President Donald Trump has not recognized the significance of the Iranian elections, as was evident from his speech in Saudi Arabia yesterday. Trump called on Muslims everywhere to rid their communities of extremism, and to embrace the promise of growth and prosperity. To be sure, Iran still poses serious security challenges to U.S. interests in the Middle East. But the election made clear what Iranian voters want: economic growth and engagement with the world. And that is what Rouhani has promised them.
In the years ahead, Rouhani is bound to face stiff resistance from conservative clerics and the Revolutionary Guards, whom he took to task during the presidential campaign. But to keep the people on his side, he will have to take risks, with the encouragement and rewards of the United States and its allies—economic and diplomatic engagement—when he does. That cannot be achieved by escalating tensions and confrontation. Washington needs more than a U.S.-Saudi-led containment strategy if it is to take advantage of this moment in Iran.