Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, though easily re-elected last May, faces a more confrontational United States, a more aggressive Saudi Arabia, and lower expectations of economic benefits from the nuclear deal than he did in his first term. These factors are emboldening hardliners in Iran's non-elected institutions, who are likely to constrain Rouhani's reformist agenda in both the domestic and international arenas.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election victory on 19 May was surprisingly easy. He received 57% of the votes against his main opponent Ebrahim Raisi’s 38.5%, in an election with a very high turnout exceeding 70%. Accompanying the apparently strong mandate was some hope among pro-reform Iranians and others that the reformist president’s second term would bring further political liberalisation and an expansion of individual liberties, as well as greater stability for Western companies keen to invest in Iran. Yet, especially in light of US President Donald Trump’s confrontational policies vis-à-vis Iran, the non-elected political institutions of Iran’s constitutional theocracy – the Supreme Leader himself, the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council and the judiciary – and its security and intelligence apparatus are likely to inhibit these objectives, challenging Rouhani’s first-term approach of detente and dialogue. Rouhani’s second term could thus follow the pattern of reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s second term from 2001­–2005, which saw him increasingly reined in by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamanei and enabled the rise of a reactionary, vitriolic president in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

During his first term, Rouhani’s signal international achievement was the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – that is, the Iran nuclear deal – with the P5 nations plus Germany and the European Union, despite Israel's assertive opposition to the deal. At the regional level, Rouhani also improved ties with Saudi Arabia in the form of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) agreement in late 2016 under which Gulf Arab members led by Riyadh allowed Iran to boost production, and the March 2017 arrangement whereby 85,000 Iranian pilgrims were allowed to travel to Mecca. Nevertheless, the post-election climate in Iran is very tense and wary due to the Trump administration’s increasing hostility towards the country as well as the structural factionalisation that customarily holds back presidents in their second term. One factor that may affect these dynamics is tension between hardliners or ‘principlists’ intent on preserving Iran’s revolutionary vocation and pragmatists like Rouhani interested in re-integrating Iran into the international community, which is likely to increase as the question of who will succeed the ageing Khamanei, who is 78, as Supreme Leader becomes more pressing. Khamanei has shrilly chastised Rouhani about courtship of foreign investors and openness to Western education and highlighted the impeachment and exile of the Islamic Republic’s first president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. Rouhani has resisted, rejecting intimidation and casting aspersions on undemocratic aspects of Iran’s governance, including the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

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Iran under Rouhani: increasing constraint

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani faces a confrontational United States, an aggressive Saudi Arabia, and Iranian hardliners who have been emboldened to constrain his reformist agenda.