Iran poll balances ‘external loosening’ with ‘internal stiffening’


Iranians headed to the polls Friday in elections made easy for conservatives after sweeping bans that left many pro-reform candidates off the ballots, adding further political pressures on Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s pragmatist president, the Washington Post reports.

The poll is unlikely to change Iran’s prevailing power structure, analysts suggest.

“Voters have the option to choose different shades of status-quo conservatives along with some meek reformists,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The results of the supreme leader’s latest medical checkup will likely prove more consequential to Iran’s political future than the results of the Majlis elections.”

Nor has Rouhani fulfilled the expectations of Iranian moderates and reformists.

“Rouhani has not improved the dismal human rights situation in Iran nor gotten Green Movement leaders released from more than four years of house arrest,” notes Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

During his tenure, military and intelligence suppression of political activists has remained robust and effective. As Mohammad Reza Khatami, former deputy speaker of parliament and a prominent reformist, put it recently, Mr. Rouhani’s government is “the loneliest government ever of the Islamic Republic.”

Iran’s first elections since last year’s nuclear deal are set to be a referendum on Rouhani’s efforts to mend ties with the West—and an early verdict on the Obama administration’s gamble on engagement, the Wall Street Journal adds (HT: FPI).

Since the nuclear agreement Khamenei has warned that Iran must guard against economic, social and cultural “infiltration” from the United States and other western countries, AFP adds.

This highlights a shift in emphasis under Ayatollah Khamenei toward non-military threats, notes Stanford University’s Farzan Sabet, managing editor at IranPolitik, including: cultural infiltration and “soft war”, in which Western soft power changes Iranian cultural values and draw the hearts and minds of the people away from the regime; political infiltration and “colour revolution”, in which the political system is transformed from within; and economic infiltration and sanctions, in which the country’s domestic economy is weakened and made dependent on its enemies.

“Ever since the nuclear deal secured the economic survival of the state, Khamenei has engaged in an energetic effort to secure the survival of the revolution,” Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert, told The Jerusalem Post:

With the international sanctions regime removed, the supreme leader “no longer needs President Hassan Rouhani and the technocratic elites of the Islamic Republic,” said Alfoneh, adding that this is why most Rouhani supporters were disqualified in the run up to the parliamentary election.

“The next parliament is likely to be dominated by veterans or supporters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, which safeguards the regime,” he asserted.

The problem for the Islamic Republic is not the political composition of its parliament or the age of its Assembly of Experts but the fact that its leaders have no vision for how to meet future economic challenges, notes Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Iran today resembles the Soviet Union of the 1970s, a regime that avoided economic reforms and hoped that oil money would save it–eventually, from itself, he writes for the Wall Street Journal:

That was a regime that indulged in imperial ventures with obvious costs but hard-to-discern benefits; a regime shielding itself in an ideology that convinced a few and inspired no one. This dilemma cannot be resolved by another round of circumscribed elections. ….But to Iranian conservatives, poverty is a price worth paying for independence. The revolution can never flourish if it is hemmed in by foreign goods and temptations of Western culture.

The current field is a product of constraints imposed from above; as Saeed Ghasseminejad noted last week, it is so narrow that the reformist list for the Assembly of Experts had to draw on figures who’d been involved in killing dissidents, John Allen Gay writes for the National Interest.

In the run-up to the elections, authorities cracked down heavily on Iran’s fragile civil society:

Members of an Iranian heavy metal band are reportedly facing possible execution for playing music the government says is blasphemous, reports suggest:

The executive director of Washington, DC-based human rights organization Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation [a partner of the National Endowment for Democracy], Roya Boroumand, said sources told her the two could indeed be charged with apostasy due the content of songs such as “I’m Your God Now” and “Teh-Hell-Ran.”

“They could be facing some serious charges,” Boroumand told FOX411.

The elections do matter, if only as an indicator of the regime’s popular legitimacy, analysts suggest.

“The system has an incentive to say large numbers of people voted,” said Takeyh. “Iran likes to control elections, but it also likes a large turnout to legitimize the system,” he tells the Post.

If most of the moderates up for office win seats, that could make it easier for Rouhani to open up the economy to foreign investment. But conservatives refer to reformists as “seditionists,” and their small numbers ensure that Rouhani is unlikely to get enough backing for most of his goals.

“Could some of the centrists come to power? It’s possible,” said Alireza Nader, an analyst at the Rand Corp. “But the conservative establishment will not allow Rouhani to use parliament as a basis for reforms. The reformist movement in Iran is very weak. It’s not willing to do things that really challenge the system.”

None of this favors Iran’s pragmatists and centrists, let alone its reformers, notes Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:

In fact, as Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group notes, in Iran historically “external loosening” is balanced with “internal stiffening.” That is what happened after the 1988 cease-fire in the war with Iraq, and after the 2003 nuclear agreement with Britain, France and Germany, when the powerful Guardian Council disqualified reformist candidates in the next elections and conservatives regained their parliamentary majority. A step forward in a highly authoritarian and ideological system can easily produce a few steps back, or at least to the side…..Indeed, fear of rapid change in Iran compounds the worries of hard-liners who for reasons of ideology and commercial or financial self-interest see threats to their interests in a more open society.

“The point they are making, in order to increase voter participation, is that voting hard-liners out at this juncture will send a powerful message of popular sentiments in support of the country’s redirection since 2013,” said Farideh Farhi, a Middle East scholar at the University of Hawaii.

Conversely, a poor performance at the ballot box would be a huge setback for the already weak reform movement, he tells the Post.

“If [conservatives] win, having been given a leg up by the unfair electoral system, it will also be a powerful message that they have the means and instruments to create obstacles for Rouhani’s redirection of the country,” Farhi said.

“Perhaps over time — a great deal of time — the extremist, ideological forces that rule Iran will bend or be forced to make way for meaningful change,” the Wilson Center’s Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times:

But highly authoritarian governments in recent times — Russia, China, Vietnam, even Cuba — have proved adept at maintaining control even while they open up a crack to achieve specific goals. Henry Kissinger once said Iran needs to decide whether it is “a nation or a cause.” This election is unlikely to answer that question. And right now there’s little the United States, business deals with Europe or a nuclear accord can do to change that inconvenient reality.

In assessing Iran’s future leadership, U.S. analysts—and the next U.S. administration—are better off not focusing on personality or political inclination, the Washington Institute’s Khalaji writes for the Wall Street Journal:

A future Iranian leader is likely to govern from a comparatively collective and corporate mind-set–and the process of becoming leader is likely to reset his interests and orientations. One possibility is that the next Iranian leader will further entrench its policy of defying Western interests regionally and globally, intensifying its ideological ambitions. Then again, new leadership could deviate from the revolutionary road, jettisoning anti-Western aspirations and seeking the comforts of inclusion as a normal international player. At this juncture, with Ayatollah Khamenei and hard-liners in the Assembly of Experts firmly in control, fundamental change looks to be a ways off.

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