The 2017 Iranian presidential elections followed shortly before the U.S. election. During his reelection campaign, Rouhani sought to retain the moderate and reformist vote that he had received four years earlier. So he advocated for fewer restrictions on political and social life. He also promoted an educational reform program, which Khamenei dismissed as not sufficiently Islamic and disposed toward a “corrupt and destructive Western lifestyle.” While domestic reforms were a high priority for many of Rouhani’s more moderate supporters, the election effectively became a referendum on the JCPOA.
To Rouhani and his backers, the deal had achieved its goal of opening the Iranian economy, the benefits accrued to ordinary Iranian citizens, and the stage had been set for more cooperation with the West. However, he could not make further concessions for additional sanctions relief. To conservatives and hardliners aligned with Khamenei, Iran had not received the promised economic benefits, partly because of continued economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic for terrorism, human rights abuses, and other malign behaviors. The more conservative candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, attempted to pull urban middle-class voters into his conservative camp who had not seen benefits from the JCPOA. Raisi hewed to an anti-corruption campaign, raising doubts about Rouhani’s economic management and ability to assist poor Iranians. He also appealed to the deeply religious segment of the Iranian population, advocating for rigorous adherence to the precepts of Islam by Khomeini and the conservative clergy.
The Iranian presidential election again enjoyed a relatively high voter turn-out compared to previous elections. Rouhani received 56 percent of the approximately 40 million votes cast, suggesting that voters largely approved of Rouhani’s outreach to the West and his Western-oriented cultural policies, notwithstanding that Iran’s economic recovery lagged because of corruption, mismanagement, and lingering U.S. sanctions. However, Rouhani quickly proved incapable of charting a new course for the Islamic Republic of Iran. It soon became clear that his domestic and foreign policy agenda would be obstructed and that he would align more closely with hardliners. In late 2017, a public backlash against Rouhani emerged, as some of his supporters turned against him due to their disillusionment with promised reforms. In December, protests cropped up in one of Iran’s holiest cities, Mashhad. Initially focused on the economy, the protests spread throughout the country and soon culminated in the most significant threat to regime stability since the 2009 Green Movement, morphing into demands for regime-change. Protestors were again outraged and emboldened, chanting “Death to the Dictator,” a reference to the Supreme Leader.
Khamenei and his conservative supporters’ campaign to uphold the core beliefs of the Islamic Revolution dashed the protestors’ hopes for a better standing on the world stage. The IRGC’s leadership, hewing to Khomeini’s belief that the Islamic Republic has a moral and religious obligation to protect Islam against Western incursions and spread its message abroad, was emboldened to expand its operations abroad. In accordance with its constitutional mandate, the IRGC’s top brass also opposed the liberalization of political and social life.
In May 2018, the Trump Administration withdrew from the nuclear deal. It reimposed “maximum pressure” against the regime to move Tehran to agree to terms that would advance U.S. national security interests. With Rouhani’s first-term signature foreign policy achievement now voided by the U.S., Khamenei further distanced himself from the agreement. In August, he issued his harshest criticism to date, denouncing the agreement for having “trespassed the redlines that [he] had set” and trusting the “Great Satan” to uphold a bargain. While Iranian officials reached out to European powers, hoping to secure their buy-in to the agreement despite the Trump Administration’s withdrawal, Khamenei hinted later that month that his country was prepared to abandon its obligations under the nuclear deal.