Moderates’ election gains ‘a setback to Iranian democracy’


Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday hailed last month’s elections that saw gains for allies of moderate President Hassan Rouhani, denying they lacked competition, AFP reports:

The February 26 vote was for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a powerful clerical body that oversees the work of the supreme leader and would choose a replacement if he dies….Khamenei also repeated his warning about Western “infiltration” of the country.

“We should have relations with the whole world, except the US and the Zionist regime, but we should also know that the world is not limited to the West and Europe,” he said.

Many Western commentators have hailed the elections as a victory for reformists or moderates over hardliners.

But the results were “too ambiguous to be reductively called a reformist victory, and indeed how the mix of centrists, moderate conservatives and independents will actually vote remains to be seen,” analyst writes for World Politics Review.

The elections “spelled the end of Iran’s once-vivacious reform movement” analysts Ray Takeyh and Reuel Gerecht write for Foreign Affairs:

In today’s Islamic Republic, the political spectrum has shifted so far to the right that die-hard reactionaries, such as Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, are presented as reasonable conservatives.

The real victor of the election was Rouhani, who in previous decades would not have been seen as a moderate at all, since he can project an image of moderation, thus easing the path for international investment. Foreigners don’t have to confess that they are investing in an increasingly conservative and increasingly strong theocracy; rather, they are aiding “moderates” at the expense of hardliners. It is commerce with a conscience.

The performance of Iran’s moderate forces has prompted new optimism for democracy in the Islamic Republic. But that is a mistake, argues Middle East Institute scholar Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar. In order to manage a restless young population, Rafsanjani and Rouhani now realize that

they must prepare for a major act, he writes for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage:

They need to dilute the Islamist core of the regime, release it from the self-inflicted anti-American trap and set it on a nationalist path directed toward the West. They could sell these liberalizing measures to the citizens as a bridge toward democracy, while framing them for the conservative establishment as an authoritarian delaying tactic. Their success might be productive for many important domestic and foreign policy initiatives. Building a democracy is not one of them — unless it becomes an unintended consequence.

Hardliners, a loose grouping of figures who claim to be unconditionally obedient to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and oppose any rapprochement with the west, still hold sway in institutions, including the elite Revolutionary Guards — a military, economic and intelligence force — and the judiciary, the FT’s Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports from Tehran:

On Monday, Mr Khamenei appointed a hardline custodian to run Astan-e Qods Razavi, a religious business foundation which has turned into an empire with astronomical wealth and political influence from its base in the holy city of Mashhad. The new appointment may further embolden the hardliners who already considered the northeastern city to be their backyard.

The elections were anything but a victory for Iran’s reformers, writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy]:

As Mehdi Khalaji wrote about the Assembly of Experts election, “if one understands ‘reformist’ as a political figure who emerged during the reform movement of the late 1990s and is associated with the parties and groups created at that time, then neither the candidates on the ‘reformist’ list nor the winners of Tehran’s sixteen assembly seats can credibly be called by that name.”

To take one of the examples Khalaji cites, Mahmoud Alavi ran on what has been called a reformist ticket but he “is the current intelligence minister, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed him as head of the military’s Ideological-Political Organization from 2000 to 2009.” Khalaji concludes that “no new prominent reformists won seats, and the proportion of hardliners remained the same.”

To make the transition to a democratic state, not only should the reformists and moderates get the upper hand in the government, but democratic groups in the society must also be strengthened, so that the coalition of the two groups can push back against the hard-liners, dissident journalist Akbar Ganji (left) writes for The National Interest:

As the elections demonstrated, Iranians in the diaspora who want regime change through military intervention have no influence or social base in Iran. Not only was their call for boycotting the elections rejected by Iranians living in Iran, but the percentage of the eligible voters who cast their votes actually increased relative to the Majles elections of 2012. Iranian society is also not in a revolutionary mood. That leaves peaceful changes from within as the only viable way of achieving democracy.

The exiled Iranian Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi has described her country as culturally ready for democracy, but still in the grip of a “totalitarian regime which is trying to impose its beliefs on the people”. Her words come as a cold shower after the high hopes prompted in the West at the trouncing of the hardliners in last month’s parliamentary election, writes analyst Alan Philps.

In the past, the Revolutionary Guards has used its security authority to create an unsafe environment for foreign competitors or marshalled its supporters in the parliament to threaten ministers who went after their economic interests with impeachment, notes International Crisis Group analyst Ali Vaez:

The recent arrest of Iranian-American businessman, Siamak Namazi, along with his 80-year old father, has given cold feet to many in the affluent Iranian diaspora who were considering investing in their home country. In the same vein, Rouhani’s attempts to levy an estimated $20 billion dollars of tax on semi-state organizations affiliated with the clerical establishment and Revolutionary Guards has been impeded by the Guardian Council. Smuggling – which costs the state some $25 billion a year – is another plague that the government cannot cure without cooperation from the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards, both immune to shifting winds of the country’s electoral politics.

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