On February 26th, Iran held elections to their national assembly and the Council of Experts (more on this group later). The assembly consists of 290 seats with 285 directly elected and five seats reserved for religious minorities. Members of the assembly can be divided into roughly three groups: the reformists who support the Iran nuclear deal, economic reforms and some relaxation on their onerous civil liberties laws, the moderate conservatives who back the nuclear deal and some modest economic reforms, and the conservative hardliners who oppose the nuclear deal, any liberalization of civil liberties and oppose economic reforms. This latter faction held the majority in their assembly.
Although results are hard to come by, it would appear that the hardliners lost seats. It is hard because they do not have political parties per se. Instead, candidates must first be vetted by the Interior Minsitry to ensure they pass Islamic muster. Some candidates are claimed by differing factions and it becomes more complicated since this is done within certain electoral districts. Thus Joe Blow could be potentially both a reformist and a moderate conservative since both groups “often” claim a candidate. The final complication is that if any candidate fails to get a certain percentage of the vote, it heads to a runoff in April. Some 59 races are headed to such a runoff.
What we can say with a certain degree of certainty is that the reformists took 85 seats, the moderate conservatives took 73 seats and the conservative hardliners held on to 68 seats. Of course, there are those other 59 seats pending the outcome of the runoffs to be considered. We do know that some prominent reformists won and that some prominent hardliners lost in these elections.
Whatever the final numbers, we know that the reformist gains are not enough to declare these elections as some turning point. Even though they gained along with the moderate conservatives, there is likely little stomach for advancing greater political freedoms. Previous generations of reformists found themselves either dead, jailed or exiled and today’s breed is more into self-preservation. However, on the nuclear deal, some increased economic ties with the West and some economic reforms, President Rouhani may find this assembly a little more open.
As for the Assembly of Experts, there were similar, yet confusing results. Unlike the assembly, these elected officials serve for eight, not four years. Again, it would appear that reformists made some gains here. The head of the Assembly of Experts- Mohammed Yazdi- was a hardliner and he lost his reelection bid. The role of the Assembly of Experts is to name a new Supreme Leader when that time comes. Of course, this is the infamous Ali Khameini. If he does not die, retire or become incapacitated in the next eight years, then the Assembly has no work. But like the College of Cardinals in the Vatican, they exert undue influence when and if the Supreme Leader leaves office.
With the lower assembly, at least 14 women won seats with another seven in runoffs. Four were elected from the same Tehran area where a current hardline female member declared that women should not attend soccer games because their role is at home servicing their husband and children.
Some liberal sites are using these results to prove that Obama was right all along with the nuclear deal- just sign a deal and Iran will liberalize. Not so fast. Rouhani’s chief ally- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani- urged officials not to stand in the way of the results and to bend to the will of the people. For his part, Supreme Leader Khameini praised the high turnout, but said little else about the results. He did say that the newly elected bodies should not be influenced by the West.
Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Emoli Larijani is not that discrete. He charged that the reformists were coordinating with American and British media outlets. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a paramilitary group with close ties to Khameini, has expressed similar sentiments.
Likely, supporters of the ill-conceived Iran nuclear deal will use this as evidence that the deal worked in softening Tehran’s stances. However, the fact that so much of the actual working governmental apparatus remains in the hands of hardliners negates this belief. Further, one has to look at these factions in the Iranian context. In fact, other than a select few, there are no “reformists” in Iran. Take this example: a “reformist” talking to a reporter said he supported the suppression of religious minorities, believes women should be veiled, viewed homosexuality as a disease that should be illegal, said alcohol should be illegal and claimed Israel was a cancerous tumor. One recent winner- a reformist female- told an Italian reporter she believed women should not be veiled. A day later, she recanted that statement.
As for the Assembly of Experts, they are an alleged check on the Supreme Leader and some believe that Rafsanjani’s election to the assembly will have a softening effect on the confab. However, their power is relatively limited and they acted only once- when the Ayatollah Khomeni died. Even then, he said Khameini would be a good replacement and that was it. Additionally, the Revolutionary Guard may have actually surpassed the clerics in terms of political power in Iran and if not, they will have an important say nevertheless.
All these factors have actually played out somewhat before. In the period from 2000-2004, Iranian leaders (mainly President Khatami) were much more reform minded. There was a more open and vibrant media also. But, there was push back against the reforms which led to the election of the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Today, the words of Khatami are banned in Iran and he is generally perceived as a pariah.
The bottom line is that despite the results of the February parliamentary elections, one should not expect Iran to suddenly become a beacon of Middle East democracy. Iranian expert Karim Sadjadpour explains it best: “The Islamic Republic of Iran is a limited democracy, wrapped in a military autocracy, inside a theocracy.” More importantly, he notes: “We shouldn’t underestimate the Iranian people’s will for change, nor the Iranian regime’s will…and means to crush those who seek change.” [Emphasis mine]
We have seen this misplaced hope and belief that things are changing in Iran. Remember the brutal repression of the Green Revolution when the Obama administration watched events unfold on Twitter? This is the likely outcome yet again should the so-called reformists press their case.