The re-election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate and reformist cleric, with a resounding mandate signifies the triumph of pragmatism over an outdated order of theocracy and a public yearning for engagement with the world. Rouhani, a progressive voice seeking to transform the Islamic republic from an ideological bastion of militant Islamism into a major regional cornerstone of economic liberalism, was instrumental in finalising the nuclear deal with the United States in 2015. His decisive victory is a welcome sign for India at a time when the Sino-Pakistan axis is posing several challenges. New Delhi can leverage its goodwill with Tehran’s reformist leadership to play a greater role in the region. Rouhani garnered 57% of the vote against 38.5% secured by his main opponent and hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi who had the backing of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The verdict is widely seen as a rejection of the stranglehold of theocratic institutions in favour of a broader global outlook and economic growth. In fact, Rouhani ran a bold campaign against conservative clerics and the security establishment and presented himself as the candidate of change and social freedom. For the restless middle-class, his victory brings the hope of a decisive outreach with the West, pursuit of more foreign investment to bail out the ailing economy and greater social freedom. The challenge before the President as he prepares for a second term is to open up the economy and initiate the much-awaited social reforms.
It is in India’s interests to strengthen the hands of Rouhani as Tehran is struggling to come out of the sanctions era and preparing for a greater engagement with the world to boost its economy. India needs to step up its investments in Iran, particularly the development of the strategic Chabahar port and the transport-trade linkages with the Central Asian republics. This would be a counterweight to China’s Belt and Road project. Despite lifting of international sanctions since the nuclear deal with the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Iran still nurses a hostile relationship with the United States as Donald Trump singled out Tehran for vicious bashing during his first overseas visit to Saudi Arabia. If Trump reneges on the nuclear deal pushed by his predecessor Barack Obama, it would spell trouble for Rouhani. The global community must extend its helping hand to Tehran’s agenda of economic revival and ensure that all forms of sanctions are lifted to make it easier for financial institutions to back investments in the country. Instead of stoking fires in the region, the US needs to work to consolidate on the gains made by the nuclear deal with Iran and help it integrate into the global economy.