Woman holds a poster of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a campaign rally in Tehran.Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won reelection Saturday, beating his conservative opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, by a hefty margin in a clear signal that the nation approves of his reformist policies that have increasingly engaged the outside world.

About 70 percent of eligible voters turned out, with some waiting hours in line and election officials repeatedly extended the voting hour until midnight. A big turnout was expected to favor Rouhani, and he won handily with 57 percent of the vote, compared with Raisi’s 38. In Iranian politics, the president is the second-most powerful person, answering to the unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi was a protege of the ayatollah, but his defeat is an indication that Iranians favor the reforms Rouhani has implemented, including an agreement reached with global powers that saw many of the sanctions against the country lifted in exchange for heavy regulations on its nuclear program.

The nuclear deal initially brought a flurry of investment to Iran in the form of, among other things, oil exploration contracts. But with the fall in global oil prices the results have been tempered, and critics have said Rouhani submitted to outside pressure without delivering the economic results he promised. U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to walk away from the deal, though the White House said earlier this week it would not drop the agreement at this time. Trump is on a trip in Saudi Arabia, the heart of Sunni Islam, where leaders will likely push Trump to take a harder-line on Iran, which is dominated by Shiites.  

In his past term, Rouhani tried to bring about social reforms and more freedoms, to revive the country’s economy by opening it up to the outside world, and to steer the country away from the more extremist hard-liners. But because the ayatollah holds veto power over all policies, Rouhani has struggled to bring this change. The contentiousness of this will also only hurt his ability to work with conservatives.

Rouhani is usually a mild-mannered politicians, but this past election, perhaps to rouse the young vote, he framed Raisi and fellow conservatives as trying to silence free expression. In one speech he said Raisi sought to “abuse religion for power,” a phrase later condemned by the ayatollah.

Reformists such as Rouhani often find themselves at odds with a political Anchorstructure dominated by religious hard liners.* Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who focuses on Iran, told Reuters that “The last two decades of presidential elections have been short days of euphoria followed by long years of disillusionment."


*This story previously said Rouhani's predecessor as president was also a reformist. The previous president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, was regarded as a hard-liner.

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