Iran’s Elections: Reformer Victory or Hardliner Ploy?

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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The electoral triumph of the moderate camp in Iran has delivered a clear mandate for President Hassan Rouhani’s policies. Preeminent among those is the nuclear deal, which promises to unleash a new wave of economic activity for the country. There are questions, however, about how deep the country’s political transformation really is, and whether the country’s conservative establishment is willing to relinquish its power. Many also doubt whether such transformation is even possible, pointing out that the moderate camp may be just a useful ploy for the real power holders in Iran to achieve their military and economic objectives.

Reflecting on Iran’s elections, the Pensinsula‘s editorial staff suggests that the victory of the moderate camp is a “reward” for the nuclear deal. However, it is clear that now the region and international actors will be looking for real signs of change: “Iran’s voters have rewarded  President Hassan Rouhani and his allies for the nuclear deal his government struck with the West which ended years of stiff sanctions. The twin polls held on Friday, for the parliament and the clerical assembly of experts, were seen as a test for Rouhani who had sought reelection for a continuation of his policies and to finish the task he has undertaken by signing the nuclear agreement….Our region too will be looking at Rouhani’s new term with hope. On the foreign policy front, the new government must follow the path of reconciliation and non-interference to bring security and stability to this region. With a number of conflicts raging in the Middle East, the need for non-interference has become stronger than before.”

Hurriyet Daily News‘s Mustafa Aydin cautions that even though the overall attitude toward Iran should be guarded, there is a chance that the elections may become a catalyst for small but significant change: “The elections for the 88 members of the Assembly of Experts, which is the clerical body in charge of appointing a supreme leader if a vacancy occurs by death, was more important this time as rumors has been circulating for some time regarding the declining health of the 76-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has held the position since Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989….Nevertheless, both the parliament and the president have limited and symbolic powers in the Iranian hybrid political system, whereas the supreme leader has the ultimate power. The system is not likely to change significantly in the foreseeable future. Thus expecting a sudden fundamental transformation would be naïve, though the results might spark the beginning of long overdue reforms.”

Smadar Perry, in an op-ed for the Yedioth Ahronoth, argues that appearances may be deceiving in Iran, and that despite the electoral triumph of the moderate camp, the conservative establishment continues to call the shots: “Let’s put it bluntly: the conservative camp deserves a tip of the hat for the nuclear deal, for President Rohani’s warm presentation, and the wide smiles that Foreign Minister Zarif beamed every time he visited Geneva and met with US Secretary of State Kerry. The great achievement of the nuclear agreement belongs to the conservatives led by Khamenei. The second camp, peace-seeking moderate reformists who lit a menorah in Tehran’s synagogue, is only a tool in the hands of the government in order to achieve its objectives. Whoever thinks that an increase, even dramatic, of the number of voters for reformists will ensure an immediate revolution in Iran, must remember that the reformist President Rohani, who was elected thanks to the young, answers to the conservative government establishment more than he does to his voters. The establishment does not intend to give up the pleasures of power.”

Arab News‘s Osama Al Sharif is another regional observer who remains unmoved by the recent changes in Iran, pointing out in a recent op-ed that “it is doubtful that the influence of Iran’s moderates and reformists would extend beyond domestic affairs. Foreign policy will continue to be orchestrated by Khamenei and the IRG. Iran’s support of terrorism and its involvement in regional instability are a source of major concern in the Gulf region and beyond. Its threats to its neighbors are being taken seriously by Riyadh and Ankara, among others. Still, there is a need today for triumphant Rouhani to send a message that his country’s policies will be revised.”

Part of the challenge, as Eyad Abu Shakra puts it in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, is the perception that for all of the democratic trappings that elections come with, Iranian democracy is such only in name: “What the ruling authorities in Tehran regard as ‘democracy’ or ‘shura’ is beyond the scope of this argument, it is enough to say that the current Iranian regime is underpinned on a solid theocratic – security base that monopolizes the right to choose who runs for the ‘Majlis’ (The Lower House of Parliament) and the ‘Assembly of Experts’, and who are branded as traitors. Such ‘democracy’ in practice takes place against a background of hallows reserved to unacceptable political opponents and is distrusted by a large section of Iranian society; including once prominent symbols and figures in Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution before they ending up marginalized, exiled or placed under house arrest….Today the West, at the helm of the international community, is committing the same mistake again. In concentrating exclusively on fighting ISIS, it is ignoring the extremism of Tehran’s Mullahs and their IRGC, and forgetting the ‘incubator’ of the ISIS discourse, and the simple fact that ‘extremism begets extremism’.”

Judging from the overall reaction in the region, it is clear that Iran’s government has its work cut out for in terms of the perception of Iran in the region and beyond. In a recent statement published by Tehran Times, the country’s foreign minister “Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday.  Zarif made the remarks as he hosted reporters who covered more than two years of nuclear talks between Iran and great powers (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany).The minister said Iran painstakingly monitors how committed the six powers are to their deal, Fars news agency reported….Elsewhere in his remarks, he hailed the massive turnout in elections on Friday, noting that the Iranian people will never allow anything to prevent them from shaping their future. The huge turnout in Friday’s elections demonstrated the Iranians’ resolve to decide their fate irrespective of any problem, Zarif said.”

However, as reports of an scheduled visit by Turkey’s Prime Minister underscores, there is a sense that the outcome of Iran’s elections marks yet another important milestone in Iran’s attempted reintegration in the international system: “Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will pay an official visit to Iran to discuss bilateral ties and the latest developments in the region. The premier’s office said in a statement that Davutoglu will travel to Iran on Friday on a two-day visit. The two sides are slated to discuss regional crises, particularly the five-year-old conflict in Syria. Tehran and Ankara have different views on the war in the Arab country….The travel will be the first high-level state visit to Iran since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the country in April 2015. The two neighbors seek to expand trade relations after the lifting of sanctions on Iran in January. Turkey kept buying a limited amount of crude oil from Iran even under sanctions and maintained other business ties with Tehran.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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