As President Donald Trump rocked from foot to foot at the edge of a sedate, highly choreographed sword ceremony in Riyadh last week, 800 miles away, thousands of young people were streaming into the streets of Tehran for a wild, spontaneous dance of celebration.
The Iranians were mostly marking reformist President Hassan Rouhani’s landslide victory in his re-election bid, a sweeping endorsement of his policy of ending international isolation while rolling out greater freedoms at home. They were also marking a win for democracy in a region where the right to a meaningful vote is in all too short supply. Iran’s supreme leader and powerful unelected bodies had left little doubt that they favoured his opponent, but Rouhani won anyway.
Saudi Arabia is one of many countries in the Middle East that keeps its few periodic gestures towards democracy as closely choreographed as its welcoming ceremonies. The electorate is no more likely than the sword dancers to wrest power from its autocratic leaders.
Yet the next day, when Trump took to the stage in Riyadh for a speech touted as a landmark policy address, he had nothing but menace for Iran, effectively lining up behind critics who dismiss its votes as sham propaganda shows. It was at best disingenuous, at worst an attempt to mislead, by misrepresenting Iran’s complicated and bizarre hybrid of democracy and theocracy. It is true that the president is not the ultimate ruler, a position held by supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appointed for life and the unelected bodies that answer to him, such as the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the judiciary, wield immense power.
But the president can exert a powerful influence on the economy, international relations and internal norms. Anyone who disputes the significance of the elections should consider the difference between the Iran governed by Holocaust-denying hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad between 2005 and 2013 and Iran under Rouhani.
“Dismissing the ballots of 41 million Iranians as irrelevant or fake – as the Trump administration and some of its supporters were quick to do – represents a dangerous miscalculation in a region that can ill afford more American delusions,” said Suzanne Maloney, analyst with the Brookings Institution. “Multibillion dollar arms sales and gilded conclaves of octogenarian autocrats will not beget the ‘better future’ that Trump’s Riyadh speech rightly challenged the region to build.”
The joy on the streets of Tehran, where police stood by as young people broke rules on the mixing of genders, was mostly driven by that hope, in a country where unemployment and inflation are still rampant. Although Rouhani’s landmark nuclear deal was welcomed by Iranians tired of isolation, it has yet to unleash the hoped-for economic benefits. Unilateral US sanctions remained in place even after international bans were lifted.
The economy was at the heart of the campaign and perhaps Rouhani’s weakest point; he will be under greater pressure to deliver growth. He will need foreign investment and further engagement from governments willing to ignore Trump’s message.
If western nations that worked so hard with Rouhani to craft the nuclear deal want to see Iran’s reformers prosper, they should think what they will have to offer the electorate when it returns to the polls in four years’ time.