On February 26, 2016, elections in the Majlis and Assembly of Experts were held in Iran. Their outcomes are expected to play a significant role in determining the future of the Islamic republic for the next several. On the one hand, the results of the parliamentarian elections were important for President Hassan Rouhani associated with Iranian moderates: without the majority of his supporters in the new Parliament he would not be able to implement those socio-economic changes he promised to the electorate during his first presidential campaign. The success of reforms, in turn, matters a lot for the political destiny of Rouhani himself: if they fail his chances to be re-elected for the second term will be much lower.

Nikolay Kozhanov
Kozhanov is a former nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and a contributing expert to the Moscow-based Institute of the Middle East.
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The results of the Assembly of Experts’ elections were no less important. This structure has the right to elect and dismiss the Supreme Leader of the country (the highest authority in Iran) as well as to confirm the legitimacy of his decisions. Given the age of Ali Khamenei (who is 76) the Assembly of experts elected in 2016 has all chances to choose the next Supreme Leader of the country. Under these circumstances, the reformists and moderates were extremely interested in increasing their presence at this government body traditionally dominated by the conservatives (who traditionally call themselves ‘principlists’) and conservative radicals.

Time to even the odds

Above all, the importance of the February 26 elections was determined by the fact that, for the first time since the contested presidential elections of 2009 the reformist and moderate forces of Iran were strong enough to challenge the conservative camp that for more than a decade dominated the political life of the country. By February 2016, the conservatives formed the largest group of the Majlis (that possessed more than 60 per cent of seats). They enjoyed the obvious support of the Supreme Leader and were very effective in building occasional alliances with the radicals and those pragmatics who supported conservative views. In terms of their political preferences, Iranian conservatives are traditionally skeptical about the liberalization of the socio-economic life in Iran and concerned with “the threat” of the Western cultural influence. They support the idea of the active state involvement in the Iranian economy and believe in the necessity to achieve the economic self-sufficiency in the key areas. For them, the current attempts of Rouhani’s administration to bridge Iran’s relations with the West are considered as necessary evil. The conservatives agree on the limited restoration of economic cooperation with European players but remain loyal to the confrontational line in political relations with the West (first of all, the USA).

Principlists’ approaches find negative response among Iranian reformists, liberal pragmatics and moderates who associate themselves with the political course of the current president, Hassan Rouhani, and prominent Iranian politician, Ali Hashemi-Rafsanjani. In spite of the fact that terms “reformists” and “liberals” should be applied to political groupings existing in Iran very cautiously (both reformists and conservatives think exclusively within the framework of the Islamic regime narratives), their vision of regime’s future is different from that of the traditionalists. The Iranian reformists believe in socio-economic liberalization as the main condition for the successful development of the country. They also support the idea of Iran’s active reintegration in the system of international relations as reliable and responsible player via reestablishing of good relations with the West and the region.

Yet, the reformists’ participation in the decision-making process in Iran was substantially marginalized during the years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005 – 2013). The then-president of the country was consistently squeezing out reformists and moderates from the government apparatus replacing them with neo-conservatives and people with military background (first of all, those connected with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, IRGC). The reformist camp experienced the most sensitive blow during the 2009 riots provoked by the contested results of the presidential elections and dissatisfaction of the certain part of Iranian mid-class, students and intellectuals with the reelection of Ahmadinejad. The successful suppression of the so-called Green movement considerably weakened the Iranian moderates and put an end to the political career of many young members of the reformists camp who were accused of being the religious secessionists and enemies of the Islamic idea. It was not until 2013 when the election of Rouhani as a president of Iran gave the moderates a new hope on return in the political life of the country. His success in lifting international sanctions led to the growth of public support for the reformists’ ideas and created necessary political and physiological background for reforms that might bring greater liberalization to the socio-economic life of the country. Under these circumstances, the conservative majority in Iranian Majlis was believed to be one of the main obstacles on the way of reforms in Iran. Yet, the 2016 elections gave the chance to bring necessary changes.

Choosing the election strategies

During their election campaign, reformists and moderates were counting on the mass participation of the electorate as well as on the effect of public fatigue from the international isolation, difficult socio-economic situation in the country and the constant failures of the conservatives to improve it. Under these circumstances, the moderates expected that the success of the nuclear negotiations led by Rouhani’s administration closely associated with the reformists’ cause could make the Iranian public vote for the political alternative to the conservatives who are to be blamed for the international isolation of Iran. Finally, in order to exclude any confusion among pro-reformists part of the electorate Hashemi-Rafsanjani formulated a united list of the candidates that every supporter of the Rouhani’s cabinet was expected to vote for.

In their election strategy conservatives relied on their traditional leverages: administrative apparatus and effective political propaganda accusing opponents in sectarianism and the treachery of the Islamic cause. This time, the procedure of the candidates’ approval by the Ministry of Interior and Guardian Council was extremely rigid. No surprises that most of those candidates excluded from the election race were the members of the reformists’ camp. Consequently, some poling districts had just one – maximum two candidates for the Assembly of experts (in most cases, representing the conservative camp). The Iranian authorities even managed to exclude from the election process the grandson of ayatollah Khomeini, Hassan Khomeini.

Long before the date of elections, Iranian media sources loyal to the conservatives and radicals started to draw public attention to the issues existing in the economy of the country, de-facto, blaming the President and his team for the inability to cope with existing challenges. The moment for this criticism was very appropriate: after the brief period of stabilization, economic situation in Iran started to aggravate whereas solutions offered by the Rouhani’s administration were not always timely and appropriate. In spite of the demonstrated high interest in Iran foreign companies were also not in a hurry to invest in the country’s economy.

In order to diminish the positive psychological effect from the sanctions’ lifting on the numbers of reformists’ supporters in the country, some conservative media outlets were spreading the rumors that Rouhani disobeyed the orders of the Supreme Leader and negotiated the deal between the P5+1 and Iran on the conditions that were worse than those initially approved by Khamenei. Khamenei himself also made a number of statements that were supposed to downgrade the importance of the nuclear deal in the public opinion.

Big cities versus small towns

On the eve of February 26 elections, the Iranian domestic realities were in favor of the conservatives, as well. On the one hand, after the 2009 riots, the large number of young popular reformists was excluded from the political life of the country. For their participation in the Green movement they were labeled as secessionists without any chance to pass the approval procedures for election candidates. At the same time, the conservatives did not have problems with the inflow of the “fresh blood”. On the other hand, the reformists traditionally put the main accent on gaining the support of the electorate in the major cities of the country whereas, since Ahmadinejad’s era, the conservatives have been paying a lot of attention to the political moods in provinces. The reformists’ strategy appeared extremely short eye-sighted. Indeed, the eight largest cities of Iran accommodate up to one third of the country’s population. Yet, only about 60 seats of the parliament (out of 290) are elected there. As a result, political defeat in the major cities (traditionally pro-reformist) would not mean that the conservatives are to lose the whole campaign.

By 2016, the positions of the principilists in the Iranian provinces were considerably strong. This was determined not only by the conformist nature of the provincial society but also by the results of the Ahmadinejad’s efforts: the previous president of Iran did a lot during his presidency to strengthen the presence of conservatives and neo-conservatives in the government structures of the Iranian provinces and to push the reformists forces out of them. After the election of Rouhani, the balance of power in the regions has not changed much. The rest was determined by the traditional habit of the provincial electorate to vote for those “who do things”. The reformists were largely deprived of the possibility to take part in the provincial decision-making process (and, as a result, considered as a force that will not be able to help the locals in securing their needs) whereas the conservatives heavily involved in it started to be associated with the active and creative force capable to draw attention of the political center to the provincial needs.

Victory with a bitter aftertaste

Yet, neither conservatives nor reformists managed to achieve the decisive victory during the past elections. Indeed, each side reached certain success but this success has the definite bitter aftertaste. The conservatives failed to prevent the reformists and moderates from increasing their presence in the parliament. Moreover, although the principlists still have chances to become the biggest group in the Majlis (if they succeed during the second round of the parliamentarian elections) their numbers still will not be big enough to dominate the parliament as it was before. At the same time, the increased share of independent candidates may lead to more intense political struggles in the Majlis. Through their success in the major Iranian cities (especially in the capital) the reformists and moderates also managed to undermine the positions of conservative radicals: some of their most outstanding figures (including Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Muhammad Yazdi and Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi) failed to secure their seats both in the parliament and Assembly of experts. All these results could be considered as serious achievement done by the reformists and a serious claim to the return to the political life of the country.

At the same time, the conservatives were weakened but not defeated at all. As it was mentioned, they still remain an influential grouping in the parliament. The conservatives still retain the support of the Supreme Leader who has the last word in every discussion of the key issues of the country’s life. The Iranian political structure represents such an intricate system of check and balances that gives the country’s authorities many options to involve in the legislative initiatives of the parliament at every stage. The Assembly of Experts remains largely dominated by the conservative forces. The defeat of Muhammad Yazdi and Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi did not become critical as their followers managed to receive seats in the Assembly. Apart from that, any questions related to the removal of the supreme leader or the election of his successor are so delicate that, if once risen, they will be discussed not within the Assembly but among the leading clans of the Iranian ruling elite. This, in turn, makes the outcomes of the Assembly of Experts not that crucially important. Under these circumstances, the Iranian conservatives should not see themselves in a great danger.

Do they want changes?

It is also not very clear to what extent the current reformists and moderates are actually ready for deep reforms? Obviously, not that much. The reformist movement of 2016 is different from that of the mid-1990es and even 2009. First of all, previously, both Rouhani and Hashemi-Rafsanjani has never been considered as a part of the reformist camp. In the past, Hashemi-Rafsanjani was associated with the conservatives or, at best, conservative pragmatics who were ready to change their views on some issues if it was necessary for their interests, but none of them ever supported the liberal ideas. In the case of Rouhani, before his election as the President of Iran he was believed to be a man of Khomeini. Even now, some analyst argue that his victory in 2013 was a part of the Supreme Leader’s plan to ease the political tensions existed in Iranian society after the 2009 riots by offering the electorate a candidate for the president seat who looked like a reformists but without real intention to conduct any substantial social reforms. Under these circumstances, it is notable that most of the social changes made by Rouhani’s office were, so-far, very superficial. Moreover, Iran’s president did little to ease the destiny of the Green movement leaders and rank-and-file members who are still suffering from the government persecution.

The reformists camp itself is not very united. It consists of multiple groupings connected by the understanding of the necessity to bring some economic and social changes but with different vision of the degree and depth of these transformations. The majority of the current reformists are much more interested in improving the country’s economic rather than in making social changes. The presence of the considerable number of well-known conservatives in the list of the reformists’ candidates is another peculiar feature of the past elections. Moreover, in the case of the Assembly of Experts some names appeared in the election lists of both conservatives and moderates. Consequently, it will be possible to judge about the political views of some members of the reformists’ camp only after the beginning of their work.

All in all, the 2016 elections to the Iranian parliament and Assembly of Expert definitely brought, at least, nominal changes in the political landscape of the country. Yet, the potential impact of these changes on the future development of the country will probably be limited.

This article originally appeared on the TRENDS Research & Advisory’s site.