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Hassan Rouhani won the 2017 presidential election handsomely, winning 57% of the votes cast, against his conservative rival Ebrahim Raeisi’s 38.5%, and avoiding a second round.

Many saw the election as a watershed moment for Iran. Both candidates were insiders, however, or they would never have been allowed to stand in Iran’s tightly controlled election. Neither candidate promised to tear up the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Towards the end of the campaign, Rouhani shifted his campaign style, to make some sharp attacks on his opponents and on the conservative establishment, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. An apparent attempt to motivate more radical and younger voters, it sharpened the reformist flavour of the election result. Reformist candidates also did well in simultaneous local elections.

Rouhani’s first term was dominated by the nuclear agreement and largely successful attempts to stabilise the economy; inflation was brought under control for the first time in many years. A better-functioning economy did not translate to better living standards for poor Iranians, however, and unemployment, especially among the young, remained very high.

Although Rouhani had offered better protection for human rights, this was not delivered in the first term, largely because conservative factions (allied with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) retain control of the judiciary, the security apparatus and other important domestic institutions. Amnesty International reported heavy suppression of freedom of conscience and common and widespread torture of detainees.

In foreign policy, too, there was no moderation of Iran’s intervention in countries such as Syria and Lebanon. Iranian-funded and organised Shiite militias in Iraq were accused of war crimes. Here again, the President has limited influence.

In the next few years the Trump Administration’s approach to Iran may determine the survival of the nuclear deal, which he described as “disastrous”. The US president has made hostile comments about Iran and sought to bolster traditional Middle East alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia. So far, the Administration has not taken any decisive steps to end the nuclear deal. A review of policy towards Iran was announced in April 2017.

The Iranian ballistic missile programme could be a flashpoint. It is not included in the nuclear deal but is covered by a UN Security Council Resolution that calls on Iran not to work on ballistic missiles that could carry a nuclear warhead. Iran carried out a test in January on a missile that the US said was nuclear-capable (Iran denied that it breached the Security Council Resolution). The Administration imposed new sanctions connected with the ballistic missile programme.

The Trump Administration has made clear its view that the outgoing Administration, in order to secure the nuclear accord, allowed Iran too much leeway to disrupt the Middle East, and that the nuclear deal provided Iran with funds to do that. Getting Iran to change its policy in the Middle East will not be easy, however, as Iran considers itself to be facing existential threats.

Although the power of the presidency is strictly limited and the Supreme Leader is far more powerful, the election is important to Iran – it will influence the choice of the next Supreme Leader (Ali Khamenei is 77 and in dubious health).

The result also suggests that a new Iranian generation is less interested in preserving the principles of the Revolution than in pragmatic policies, engagement with other countries and personal freedom. Nevertheless, the conservatives, or ‘principlists’ – those who defend the principles of the Revolution – remain powerful and could well make a comeback at the next presidential election in 2021.

The UK’s traditionally difficult relationship with Iran is unlikely to be changed rapidly by Rouhani’s re-election. The UK and Iran have had full diplomatic relations since 2015, but the relationship has been disrupted by arrests of UK-Iranian dual nationals and by disagreements over the Syria conflict, among other things. Nevertheless the UK supports the full implementation of the nuclear deal.

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