02.03.2016 Author: Vladimir Odintsov

General Elections in Iran

4353453452222On February 26, for the first time in the history of the country, Iranians elected their tenth parliament (Majlis) and simultaneously, there were elections to the fifth Assembly of Experts of the Islamic Republic of Iran—a religious public body with the authority to select one of its members to carry out the duties of the supreme leader of the country in cases of emergency—(presently, the country’s supreme leader is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). This is the first general election for Iranians since the signing of the historical agreement on the nuclear program with world powers.

Citizens with the right to vote (nearly 55 million) elected 290 parliamentarians, who will serve a four-year tenure (6,000 candidates were competing for the seats in the Majlis). There were also 88 theologians elected to the Assembly of Experts for an eight-year term.

Iran’s foreign policy is determined by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and by the politicians that form his inner circle—adherents of strict policy. The Iranian parliament, on the other hand, deals mainly with country’s domestic affairs, e.g., it appoints ministers and passes draft bills. Considering these circumstances, the recent parliamentary elections will hardly affect the country’s foreign policy, though they will give impetus to the political debates that will be inevitably sparked in Iran in the next several months.

There are no real political parties in Iran. However, there are blocks formed from parliamentarians. Some of them have moderate views, some—conservative. The tension between these blocks exacerbated after President Hassan Rouhani signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015. Conservatives resisted internal reforms proposed by the government and supported by President Rouhani, including those aimed at economic growth. In fact, the governments of President Rouhani’s predecessors (Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) were seriously limited in their actions because of the unceasing conflicts with the opposing parliament. That is why many reforms were never implemented.

President Rouhani’s collaborative relations with the parliament (the President has been in this post for over half of his tenure) are seen as not only a guarantee of the successful implementation of his policy and introduction of reforms, but also an indicator that he has good chances to be re-elected in 2017. In the context of the described balance of powers in the country, proponents of reforms and centrists supporting President Rouhani formed a coalition called the List of Hope on the eve of the elections to cut down the number of harsh conservatives in both public bodies.

The Assembly of Experts, elected for an eight-year term, has more levers to manipulate Iranian policy than the parliament. It consists of 88 theologians—experts on Islamic law. Its current 76-year-old spiritual leader has some health problems. Therefore, it is highly probable that the current Assembly of Experts will elect a successor of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Assembly, much as the parliament, is also prone to serious disagreement between moderate politicians and the conservatives that dominate. Some moderate politicians, including a grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were even banned from running as candidates to the Assembly in the recent election.

Assessments released by a number of analysts demonstrate, however, that there has been a considerable shift in the traditional division of the Iranian political establishment into conservatives and reformists. The conservatives have split into two groups: the supporters of the strict policy and the pragmatists. Meanwhile, the position of many reformists has tilted toward that of the pragmatists. For this reason, some observers had difficulties predicting the results of the elections right up to the event. They also could not answer the question of how the candidates’ political activities will change after the elections.

As the results of the ballot processing suggest, around 60% of Iranians came to the voting booths. Supporters of the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, reformers and moderate politicians, are leading the elections to Parliament and the Assembly: both President Rouhani and one of his predecessors, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who represent moderate Iranian clergy were elected to the Assembly of Experts.

But it should be kept in mind that Rouhani is only a nominal reformer. He represents the stratum of educated big city dwellers. On the one hand, they are willing to establish economic relations with the rest of the world, on the other—they would not make any political or cultural concessions to the West. This is especially true since reformers have been gradually knocked from the country’s political arena within the last seven years (and more so after the 2009 mass protests).

Thus, only when the newly elected Iranian political establishment generates its first political decisions (awaited not only domestically, but also by the international community), would it be reasonable and well-grounded to confirm that Iranian foreign and domestic policy has indeed changed.

Vladimir Odintsov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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