TSG IntelBrief: A Consequential Vote in Iran
February 29, 2016

A Consequential Vote in Iran

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• The unexpectedly strong showing of moderates in Iran’s February 26 elections for the parliament and a key clerical body (Assembly of Experts) strengthens the hand of President Rouhani to institute domestic social and economic reforms

• The election results will not fundamentally alter Iran’s core regional or security policies, but the results give Rouhani sufficient backing to continue his efforts to pursue regional and international diplomacy

• The election results demonstrate the broad popularity of Iran’s nuclear agreement that took full effect on January 16, 2016

• The election could affect the choice of the next Supreme Leader, should the 76-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leave the scene within the eight-year term of the incoming Assembly of Experts.

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On February 26, an estimated 60% of Iran’s 50 million eligible voters cast ballots for the next 290-seat Majles (parliament), which is elected every four years, and the 88-seat clerical body called the Assembly of Experts, which serves an eight-year term. Iran’s Majles is not a ‘rubber stamp’ for government actions, but it does, particularly on some economic and social issues, serve as a counterweight to the presidency. The Assembly of Experts, composed entirely of Shi’a clerics, is empowered to choose a successor to the Supreme Leader and lead any rewrite of Iran’s constitution. The Assembly of Experts election was, in some ways, the more consequential of the two, because the incoming Assembly might be the one that chooses Iran’s next Supreme Leader. Although current Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains active, he underwent prostate cancer surgery in 2015. 

For the Majles, approximately 6,000 candidates competed nationwide. The most vigorous campaigning occurred in the Tehran constituency, which sends 30 members to the parliament. To be elected, candidates must receive at least 25% of the vote, leaving many races undecided until an April runoff election. No political parties compete openly, but Iran’s major factions circulated three ‘lists’ of preferred candidates consisting of ‘reformists’ seeking dramatic social change, moderate-conservatives aligned with President Rouhani and favoring gradual reform, and hardline supporters of the Supreme Leader and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, suspicious of the Iran nuclear deal and Rouhani’s external engagement policy. Pre-election tensions erupted over the exclusion of 80% of the reformists who filed to run by a screening body dominated by hardline clerics called the Council of Guardians. In total, only half of those who filed to run for the Majles were approved to compete.

With most votes counted, results show that the reformists attracted overwhelming support in the races in which they were permitted to run, including winning all of Tehran’s 30 seats. The reformists and their moderate-conservative allies apparently will together control a majority of the Majles seats. The results were a setback to hardliners, who appear to have won many fewer than the 200 seats they hold in the outgoing Majles. The Assembly of Experts election was an even starker blow to hardliners; Rouhani himself and his mentor, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, were the two top vote-earners for Tehran constituency’s 16 Assembly seats. Of three prominent hardliners, only the current Council of Guardians chairman Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati won an Assembly seat. The current Assembly of Experts leader Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, as well as Ahmadinejad mentor and prominent hardliner Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, appear to have lost their seats. 

The results are highly consequential. Rouhani’s political position emerges greatly strengthened not only because he and his ministers will now face a friendly rather than skeptical Majles, but because the strong reformist and moderate vote suggests he will be re-elected in 2017. The vote will be taken as a signal for Rouhani to press ahead on economic reforms such as the reduction of subsidies and curbing the economic power of conglomerates linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and to some clerics. Such reforms are pivotal to attracting international investment and deriving the full economic benefits of the sanctions relief of the nuclear deal—an agreement that the election results demonstrate has major popular support. The results could give Rouhani enough strength to face down the hardliner-dominated judiciary to push through the release of key reformist leaders and dissidents who are incarcerated, to reduce regime monitoring of social behavior, and to cease arresting dual U.S.-Iran nationals

Yet, the results will not produce an alteration of Iran’s regional policies, which operate within firm guidelines set by Khamenei and are enforced by the IRGC. Rouhani has not sought to alter Iran’s regional policies and defense policies, such as extensive support for key Iran ally President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and continued development of a ballistic missile arsenal. The Majles has no authority to alter those policies independently. Nor will the elections in any way reduce Iran’s extensive commitment to its main regional protégé, Lebanese Hizballah, its support for Hamas, or its support for the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebel movement in Yemen. At the same time, the results could provide Rouhani with increased room to rebuild relations with regional competitor Saudi Arabia. Iranian-Saudi relations—already strained by the aforementioned issues—were severed outright in January when Iranian protesters sacked Saudi diplomatic facilities in response to the Saudi execution of a dissident Shi’a cleric

The Assembly of Experts elections may turn out to be even more consequential than those for the Majles. The newly-elected Assembly could be the one that selects Iran’s next Supreme Leader, and the results have reduced the prospects for a hardliner to succeed Khamenei. The vote has improved the chances that Rafsanjani—the avowed advocate of a ‘grand bargain’ with the United States—will lead Iran next. His elevation could produce a more dramatic shift in Iranian policies, potentially including agreement to cease arming Hizballah and renewed diplomatic relations with the United States. 

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