Interpreting Iran's Election Results as a Win for Reformists Is Misleading

Terms like 'moderate,' 'conservative,' or 'extremist' are ideological perspectives that can be flexible under appropriate political conditions.

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An Iranian woman voting in Iran's elections shows her inked finger after casting her ballot at a polling station in Tehran, February 26, 2016.
An Iranian woman voting in Iran's elections shows her inked finger after casting her ballot at a polling station in Tehran, February 26, 2016. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It would be too easy to interpret the results of the elections for the Iranian parliament and Assembly of Experts (which chooses the country’s supreme leader and oversees his work) as a victory for the reformers. True, the reformers' lists have won more than 90 seats in the 290-seat parliament, compared to the 20 they held in the outgoing legislature, and they also secured 59 of the 88 seats on the Assembly of Experts, an important achievement likely to impact Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's successor.

But these numbers in and of themselves do not assure that favorable legislation will be passed to change the country’s economic and human rights situation to the extent Iranian citizens hope they will. Even comparing the results of these parliamentary elections to the previous ones as proof of the reformists’ achievements, and concluding that the country will be going in a completely different direction, is misleading.

In 2012 the parliamentary elections primarily reflected the deep disagreement between Khamenei and then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The nuclear agreement was still far from the public discourse, as was the chance of having the international economic sanctions removed. The internal rivalry between the two leaders determined the results, not least because even voters who considered themselves moderate or reformers — terms lacking a precise definition — preferred to give their votes to supporters of Khamenei in order to weaken Ahmadinejad.

The result was that formally, there were more conservatives in parliament. And yet this is the same parliament that worked feverishly to foil Ahmadinejad and the same parliament that overcame the hurdles en route to a nuclear agreement. Therefore, terms like “moderate,” “conservative,” or “extremist” are not necessarily indicative of the political product that these elections will yield, but are ideological perspectives that can be flexible under appropriate political conditions.

Thus, for example, the United Front of Principlists, a conservative movement with some rather radical leaders, cooperated in the last election with the list of Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran and a sharp critic of Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani is considered a “conservative moderate” and an ally of President Hassan Rohani. Should his cooperation with the Principlists recast him as a radical conservative or simply an opportunist? It would be better to understand that these definitions merely represent a trend or tendency. When put to the test, they are liable to give the wrong idea.

The domestic context of these elections is important this time, too. The results are closely linked to the nuclear agreement and even more to Rohani’s success in meeting the agreement's conditions before the deadline and getting the economic sanctions removed. Incidentally, that success was in equal measure Khamenei’s. Without his support and readiness for a dialogue with the West, the most moderate regime could not have reached a compromise.

But these election results are not a prize for reaching a successful agreement; they extend a line of credit to the regime, which will now have to keep its promises, revitalize the Iranian economy, develop a worthy economic plan, improve human rights and provide jobs for the millions of unemployed Iranians, many of whom are highly educated.

Iran has not become “more moderate” or “more conservative”; it would be more accurate to describe it as a country on hold, which has given itself a parliament that has the potential to achieve more than ever for its citizens. But this line of credit has an expiration date. In another 15 months there will be presidential elections, and Rohani will have to go to the public with a list of accomplishments. This doesn’t mean that Rohani will necessarily lose the next election, but his rivals could turn him into a paralyzed president who will end his first and second terms the way former president Mohammad Khatami did.

Herein lies the importance of the parliament, which can tilt the scales in favor of Rohani’s initiatives or empty them of content by scuttling reformist legislation. The results ostensibly indicate that the reformists and “moderate” conservatives will be a majority in parliament and in theory could form a coalition that will support the reformist campaign Rohani hopes to conduct. But this is not the only possible outcome.

The conservatives and the reformists are at odds over many substantive issues, particularly relating to civil rights, while more common denominators are likely between the moderate conservatives and the fundamentalists. Moreover, political confrontations do not only take place in the parliament building. Khamenei also has a lot to say and there are people with many different interests spending time in his court, including the religious sages and the wealthy.

It isn’t clear yet how Khamenei will lean with regard to reforms that Rohani might suggest, and how he will react if the Revolutionary Guards decide that the expected reforms could undermine their economic status. It also remains to be seen what kind of religious-cultural legacy Khamenei wants to leave behind, and if it includes a significant improvement in relations with the United States or the adoption of a revised codex of human rights laws.

Khamenei, who in the past was considered a moderate and even reformist leader, together with Rafsanjani, his colleague in the court of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, isn’t inclined to arbitrariness and knows how to weigh the relative strengths of the various spheres of political influence. The parliament is a very influential factor, but it is not the only one.

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