Iran Elections to Test Support for Rohani, the Man Behind the Nuclear Accord

The next parliament will have to deal with how to rehabilitate Iran's economy from the devastation wrought by sanctions.

An Iranian woman inspects a leaflet of a group of conservative candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Tehran, Feb. 22, 2016.
AP

“For 37 years, Iran’s enemies have tried to convince voters to refrain from going to the polls on the grounds that the outcome was in any case known in advance,” said Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to explain why Iranians must turn out to vote en masse on Friday. “This time, the Americans are keeping mum, but their agents are trying new tricks ... It doesn’t matter whether the voters make a good choice or a bad one; their participation is what matters.”

High turnout is considered crucial to maintaining the legitimacy of Iran’s system of government. The country has more than 55 million eligible voters, and in previous elections, turnout has exceeded 50 percent – a much higher rate than in, say, Egypt (with the exception of the first election after the revolution, in 2012). And Saudi Arabia doesn’t even have parliamentary elections, since it has no parliament.

Since Iranians presumably aren’t nave enough to think their parliamentary elections are free and democratic, the obvious question is why so many nevertheless turn out to vote. Could these elections alter policy? Could parliament serve as a rival to the supreme leader’s supremacy? Or is it perhaps that the assumption of a predetermined outcome is incorrect?

Almost 5,000 candidates are running for 290 seats in parliament – and that’s after more than 6,000 candidates were disqualified and another 1,200 dropped out of the race in the last two days. The disqualification of candidates by Iran’s Guardian Council is an inseparable part of a system aimed at ensuring a parliamentary majority for preserving the Islamic Republic’s system of government, as created by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution.

But even when most parliamentarians belong to the conservative or extremist factions, parliament isn’t necessarily a rubber stamp. It has broad powers, including the authority to approve or reject cabinet ministers and even the president, to approve or reject the state budget, to support or interfere with the president’s policies, and to influence the supreme leader’s decisions, given his need for public legitimacy. Moreover, Iran’s legislative process is complex, filled with checks and balances that force the president to maneuver politically and form personal alliances much like Western leaders do.

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad experienced parliament’s ability to torpedo his initiatives firsthand. For instance, it refused to pass a welfare law that would have established a generous fund from which the president could personally distribute aid to the needy; instead, it enacted a law to aid the needy directly, thereby depriving Ahmadinejad of a lever of support. His second term was characterized by many such power struggles with parliament, and these conflicts helped to make him persona non grata in Iranian politics.

Current President Hassan Rohani, in contrast, has made an ally of parliament speaker Ali Larijani, and this, along with massive assistance from Khamenei, enabled him to overcome critics of Iran’s nuclear deal with the West. Thus when conservatives demanded that the deal be approved by parliament before it was signed, Larijani countered that the Iranian constitution doesn’t require formal parliamentary approval. It’s true that Khamenei could nevertheless have insisted on such approval, but since he supported the deal and was an indirect partner in negotiating it, he threw his support behind Larijani, ensuring that the agreement easily obtained formal approval.

Iranian pundits don’t foresee any major dramas in Friday’s election. Spokesmen for the reformist movement predict that they’ll get 80 to 90 of their own people into parliament.

What really matters, however, is the overall composition of the legislature. That’s because the Western habit of describing the power struggle within Iran as one between reformists and conservatives is simplistic and fails to capture the true nature of this struggle.

For instance, some of those termed reformists – including the men who led the Green Movement protests in 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both now under house arrest – don’t seek any change in Iran’s system of government; they merely want significantly more protection for human rights and major changes in economic policy. Some of those defined as conservatives don’t necessarily oppose human rights or insist on a rigid interpretation of the constitution. And some of the so-called extremists, like a group of clerics from the city of Qom, don’t consider Khamenei fit to rule the country.

Thus the power struggles within parliament, and between parliament and other Iranian power centers, will depend greatly on the personal and ideological composition of the legislature. That is why the election is so important.

One major issue the next parliament will have to deal with is the program Rohani will present for rehabilitating Iran’s economy from the devastation wrought by sanctions. Will it expand government aid to the populace, or will it empower the private sector? Will it allow the Revolutionary Guard, which currently controls about half the economy, to continue running manufacturing centers, oil terminals, airports and seaports, or will the state manage to destroy this economic monopoly? What kinds of laws to encourage foreign investment will the proposal contain? Will the strategy Iran adopted more than two decades ago, under which it will conduct normal diplomatic and commercial relations with any country except the United States (and Israel), remain in force, or will its attitude toward America change?

On all these issues, Rohani will face an uphill battle against his political and economic rivals. Thus he will have to navigate among the various parliamentary blocs, as well as Khamenei’s associates, to achieve his goals.

The outcome of Friday’s vote will also indicate what kind of political support Rohani might command when he runs for a second term in another 15 months. A parliament too supportive of major economic and social reforms is liable to threaten “the principles of the revolution,” aka the status and power of the conservatives and the extremists, and they will therefore make use of all the mechanisms in their control to torpedo Rohani’s programs. In contrast, a hardline parliament that will hold the line against “foreign intervention” (primarily American) will in any case block Rohani’s initiatives.

That could turn Rohani into a single-issue president – the man who signed the nuclear agreement. With this mission completed, conservatives will now strive to reap the deal’s economic fruit and deprive Rohani in particular, and the reformists in general, of any further achievements. If they succeed, Rohani is liable to end as yet another presidential disappointment, just like Mohammad Khatami, who won two terms but achieved nothing of substance for the reformists.

Herein lies the final significance of the election: It will serve as a kind of test of the survivability of the nuclear deal. This doesn’t mean the outcome of the vote might result in the deal being violated or scrapped; the agreement has already become “an achievement of the revolution.” But it could result in the deal failing to provide ordinary Iranians with much recompense for their suffering under sanctions.

Consequently, the new parliament will have to present at least a facade of concern for the general public rather than solely for the well-connected – not only to justify having signed a deal with the Great Satan, but primarily to maintain the public legitimacy of Iran’s system of government.