Iran election underscores rejection of hardliners


President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and his allies appeared Monday to have made strong gains in two national elections, the first to be held since Tehran completed a sweeping nuclear deal with the United States and other Western powers, the New York Times reports:

Obtaining a strong minority in Parliament is not only Mr. Rouhani’s victory but also the result of a broader trend where the Iranian political discourse is shifting away from a polarized universe of hard-line versus reformist. Those supporting Mr. Rouhani prefer to call themselves pragmatists, centrists and moderates…..

Hard-liners, representatives of the sharper edges of Iran’s Islamic revolutionary ideology, have long had trouble attracting a large voter base. Iranian society has changed at lighting speed over the past 15 years, with the middle classes feeling more and more alienated by the harsh hard-line rhetoric against the United States, Western culture and any form of social relaxation….

The victory is big, but those expecting major social change in Iran will be proved wrong, both supporters of the government and hard-liners say. Those who made it into Parliament under the banner of reforms seem mostly to be cautious politicians. The original reformist leaders, who have pleaded for radical changes in law and ideology, are either in jail or not allowed to participate in the political process.

“They will quickly face division among themselves, since the supporters of the government is a mixed bag of individuals with different political backgrounds,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a political analyst close to Iran’s leadership. “To write off the hard-liners would be a major mistake.”

Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, Iran’s leading conservative cleric, adhered to doctrine with such conviction that he scorned the idea that votes carried political authority, the FT’s Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports from Tehran:

The stunning failure of the 81-year-old Mr Mesbah to retain his seat in the 88-man experts assembly that will choose Iran’s next supreme leader underlines the extent to which the country’s voters used Friday’s election to repudiate such hardline views.

“The election results were surely a big victory for moderate forces and a terrifying failure for hardliners,” says Saeed Laylaz, a reform-minded political analyst. “The weakening of a figure like Mesbah is a message to conservative forces that they need some kind of metamorphosis and become more moderate if they would like to survive.”

After a strong showing in Iran’s parliamentary elections, a bloc of moderate and reformist politicians are rallying around Mohammad Reza Aref, a Stanford-educated professor who wants to fix Iran’s economy and forge warmer ties with the West, the Wall Street Journal adds:

For last week’s elections, the first since Iran reached a historic nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers, Mr. Aref cobbled together a slate of change-minded candidates who favored the accord. Dubbed the “Hope List,” it tapped into a broad desire among Iranians for more openness to the West.

The result: Reformist-backed candidates, including moderate conservatives, beat hard-liners for all 30 parliamentary seats in the capital Tehran and for all but one of the Tehran seats in the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that will likely have to choose a successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei when he dies or if he steps down.

“The exact nature of the new Majlis won’t be known until after it convenes in late May,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran expert at Eurasia Group.  “But the next body will be more moderate, if unruly, as no faction will dominate.”

But outside the capital, initial results indicate that the showing was not so buoyant, and we must remember that Iran has had a pro-reform Parliament and a moderate president before; that synergy did little in the face of the overwhelming structural and economic advantages the system affords hard-liners and their institutions, notes Azadeh Moaveni, a lecturer in journalism at Kingston University and the author, most recently, of “Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran.” And now, they have had to make electoral deals with pragmatists, diluting the very notion of “reformist” as a political category, she writes for The Times:

The reform-minded in Tehran are energized, but their strategists talk of making the economy a priority and taming the extreme hard-liners, rather than pursuing social or political liberalization. The reformists who used to shake their fists and claim that Islam was on their side now speak about the importance of moving slowly, grateful simply to be out of prison. Genuine reformism, as a relevant intellectual and political culture or strategy, is effectively stalled, waiting for some major shift of circumstance, or the much dreamed-for hard-line retrenchment, to make it viable again.

Yesterday’s hardliners today’s reformists?

Most analysts agree that it’s difficult to predict political developments in Iran if Khamenei dies or becomes incapacitated, RFE/RL adds:

Some suggest Iran might experience a period of political turmoil and increased factional infighting, while others, such as analyst and former State Department official Ray Takeyh, believe that Iranian authorities would quickly name a replacement “to project the impression of continuity and strength.”

But didn’t Iran’s Guardian Council disqualify most of the reformists back in January? Of course it did, but thanks to the magic of Iranian politics, many of yesterday’s hardliners are today’s reformist, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports:

Take Kazem Jalali. Until this month, Jalali was one of those hardliners whom President Barack Obama had hoped to marginalize with the Iran nuclear deal. Jalali has, for example, called for sentencing to death the two leaders of the Green Movement, who are currently under house arrest. And yet, he ran on the list endorsed by the reformists in Friday’s election.

Two former intelligence ministers, accused by Iran’s democratic opposition of having dissidents murdered, Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri and Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, also ran on the list endorsed by Iran’s moderate president for the Assembly of Experts, the panel that is charged with selecting the next supreme leader.

As Saeed Ghasseminejad, an expert on Iranian politics at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, recently said: “Putting a reformist or moderate label on hardliners does not make them reformist or moderate.”

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