Fake reformer wins fake election

That’s the headline of Eli Lake’s story on the victory of Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani’s in this weekend’s election. Lake calls the election fake because the Iranian president lacks anything like the power we ordinarily associate with a president:

As anyone who pays attention to Iran knows, the real power in the country resides with the unelected supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the security services, which operate more like rival mafias these days, controlling many of Iran’s industries and businesses. This means in practice that Rouhani can inveigh against crackdowns and house arrests of the democratic opposition (which he mainly does during elections), but ultimately it’s not his call.

Rouhani also doesn’t have much of a say on Iran’s foreign policy. . . .

Lake calls Rouhani a fake reformer because there is scant evidence that he truly favors reform. He quotes Sadegh Zibakalam, an activist and professor of political science at Tehran University, who says:

Rouhani did not have the power to free political prisoners or end the house arrests, but he didn’t even pretend that he wanted to do something.

I agree with Lake’s assessment of the election. However, there still may something to be learned from Rouhani’s decisive win in a race that most some in the mainstream media who wrote about it expected to be close.

Rouhani’s “populist” challenger was supposed to have a good shot at winning because Iranians were dissatisfied with the economy. The economic promise of the Iran deal, we were told, had not trickled down. Ordinary Iranians weren’t benefiting from it.

Rouhani’s comfortable win suggests the absence of widespread economic discontent. This, in turns, suggests that the Iran deal may delivering more, from an economic standpoint, than Western journalists say.

This is certainly not the only way to interpret the election results. Rouhani may have won handily because voters still think of him as a reformer. Or maybe some other explanation holds the key. I’m certainly not an expert of Iran’s domestic politics.

All I can say for sure is that the close election predicted by many in the mainstream media did not materialize.

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