Analysis. The candidates turned the contest into an economic debate. And President Hassan Rouhani called his opponent’s bluff.

Why Rouhani won the Iranian election

The real winner of this presidential election is supreme leader Khamenei, who reiterates the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. The long queues at polling stations (in Iran and abroad) stayed open far later than planned. The 70 percent turnout is proof that the Islamic Republic knows how to survive its numerous existential crises.

Iranians eagerly participate in the political vicissitudes of their country, even if their elected bodies (the president and Parliament) do not dictate foreign and nuclear policy, nor do they decide war and peace. Those are prerogatives of the supreme leader.

The pragmatic Hassan Rouhani and the conservative Ebrahim Raisi contested their campaigns on economic grounds. The incumbent president Rouhani asked voters to allow him to continue the work that began with the nuclear agreement signed in July 2015, arguing he did not have enough time to boost the economy, hindered by years of sanctions and international isolation. Last year, the economy grew by 6.6 percent, mainly due to the end of the European Union’s oil embargo, which allowed crude oil exports to increase from one million barrels per day to 2.5 million.

Unemployment, however, remains a problem (in the age range between 15 and 25, one out of three Iranians is unemployed), and foreign investment is slow in coming because the U.S. financial sanctions remain in force.

At the polls, Iranian voters showed they do not believe in the conservative Raisi, who had promised to create six million new jobs and to lavish subsidies to 24 million Iranians, with a cost equivalent to $3.5 billion. For many, it was a déjà vu: That was the economic policy of former ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) who, after eliminating subsidies for fuel and basic necessities, disbursed sums in cash to the lower classes and asked banks to lend at insignificant (unprofitable) rates. Inflation skyrocketed to 40 percent and Ahmadinejad had dumped the blame on international sanctions.

This time, the incumbent president Rouhani put Raisi in on the spot when he bluntly asked him how he would fund the entitlements. Collecting from the Central Bank is the equivalent of pulling bills out of one pocket to put them in another, without creating wealth and certainly causing inflation to soar.

There are 80 million Iranians, 70 percent of whom live in cities. And 20 percent of the working-age population has a high school diploma. Sixty percent of Iranians are under 40 years of age: They have no memory of the monarchy, but at the same time they are sick and tired of the clergy in power. Even more so when the candidates for the presidency are either a white turban (Rouhani) or a black turban of the descendants of Prophet Muhammad (Raisi).

To seduce the young, Raisi did not hesitate to be filmed with rapper Amir Tataloo, 33 years old, who also showed his tattoos. It was a controversial video because the rapper had already been arrested for not falling in line with the commandments of the Islamic Republic.

On the other side, the pragmatic Rouhani was endorsed by many intellectuals, from former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and the leader of the green movement Mehdi Karroubi (who remains under house arrest, like his colleague Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard).

He was also supported by a member of the Sunni clergy, because minorities are important in a country that is a mosaic of ethnic groups, languages ​​and religions, where Sunnis are about 12 percent of believers and can be appointed to different positions (even as parliamentarians) but cannot aspire to be president.

Many women voted for Rouhani, although no female candidate passed the gauntlet of the Guardian Council in charge of the final selection. They may have voted for him choosing the lesser evil, because in the last four years, Rouhani did not favor women’s organizations, many of which were forced to close their doors or work on the sly.

The decisive factor of Rouhani’s victory was, however, a reflection on Raisi’s murky past. At the end of the 1980s, he had sent thousands of opponents of the Islamic Republic to death in an operation that had been harshly criticized by the great Ayatollah Montazeri. For this stance, Montazeri was dismissed from the position of successor of Imam Khomeini and put at the margins. Many remembered that, with a stamp, Raisi had sent many to the gallows.

With a massive participation at the polls on Friday, the Iranians prevented him from becoming their president.

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