Iranians will go to the polls on February 26 to elect members of the 290-seat parliament and the 88-seat Assembly of Experts, notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Ray Takeyh. A parliament that will continue to be dominated by hardliners is thought to be an obstacle to President Hassan Rouhani’s reforms. Elections to the Assembly of Experts will be closely watched because the body will likely select a successor to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
Yet a closer look at both institutions reveals that neither election will be as meaningful as they are often portrayed in the international press, he writes for The Atlantic:
The dichotomy often made by foreign observers of an Iranian polity divided between hardliners and reformers is an oversimplification. Rouhani has never been part of the reform faction as the term is properly understood in its Iranian context. The reform movement evolved in the early 1990s by calling for accountability and pluralism. The descendants of that movement were the participants in the Green Revolution of 2009, which was brutally repressed with Rouhani’s blessing. (He served in the Supreme National Security Council at the time.) Since the purges of 2009, Iranian politics have been reduced to a coalition of hardliners and centrists who agree far more than they disagree.
“But it is unclear whether there is an appetite for a protest vote in the forthcoming elections, in part due to the large number of candidates who have been disqualified but also because voters are not seeing the economic boost they expected in the wake of the nuclear deal,” the FT’s Monavar Khalaj reports from Tehran. “If sentiment does not change in the coming days, hardliners, whose supporters are more organized, stand a better chance of winning.”
The Qom-based clergy, once central to Iran’s Islamic revolution, has seen its influence eroded by the emergence of new power centres, notably the Revolutionary Guards [right], the dominant military, ideological and economic force, the FT adds:
The clergy’s financial independence has been affected by its increasing reliance on central government funding. The clerics are concerned that the continuation of economic woes — inflation stands at 13 per cent and youth unemployment at 25 per cent — could harm the country’s religion.
“When people have economic problems, they give fewer donations to senior clerics and ask for more financial help, while the clergy can contribute less to the poor and loses influence,” says Abolfazl Mousavian, a reform-minded cleric and professor of Islamic governance at Qom’s Mofid University. “The clergy are also concerned that economic woes are affecting people’s piety and faith in Islam.”
“The clergy has weakened over years but is still the strongest and most sophisticated institution [and is] able to prevent the country from falling into a crisis,” says Hossein Marashi, a senior reformist politician. “They [clerics] are now sitting in the shade observing developments in the light and will intervene when it rains [when Ayatollah Khamenei dies].”
The pragmatists’ inability to succeed legislatively will likely frustrate reform-minded citizens, who will voice their discontent with their representatives, namely President Rouhani, in the next election, notes Saeid Golkar, a visiting fellow for Iran policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University.
This is the process that allowed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardline loyalist to the Islamic Revolution and the Supreme Leader, to succeed President Khatami in 2005, and it will all but assure that the hardliner policies will remain unchanged, he writes for the National Interest:
As it stands, the true nature of the Iranian government, in relation to both the international community and its internal affairs, is unlikely to change anytime soon. The hardliner regime’s propensity for normalization with select members of the international community is meaningless without sincere normalization with the United States and the West, and elections will continue to be manipulated in favor of hardliners at the expense of pragmatists and reformists. Neither normalization nor democratization in Iran are likely to occur soon, and those suggesting otherwise are victims of wishful thinking.
Despite the challenges, reformists and moderates are determined to keep their voice alive, the FT adds.
“Disqualifications have definitely had a negative impact [by discouraging voters] . . . but [reformist] political forces are making up for it through newspapers and social networks such as Telegram,” said Behrouz Haghpanah, an Isfahan-based reform-oriented activist.
As Iran enters its first election cycle since the advent of the nuclear deal, what is striking is how little either the Assembly of Experts or the parliament will affect national affairs, notes the CFR’s Takeyh:
A conservative parliament will prove cantankerous, but, under the steady hand of Larijani, a largely compliant body. And the Assembly of Experts’ mostly octogenarian clerics will meet occasionally to play a mostly ceremonial role. The Islamic Republic’s most crucial political maneuvers will continue to be managed by a cast of few—including Khamenei, Larijani, and Rouhani—as opposed to the elected institutions of government.