by Francois Nicoullaud and Peter Jenkins
At this point nuances of interpretation in relation to the outcome of the first round of 2016 elections to Iran’s parliament (Majles) are possible, and the results of a second round are awaited. Nonetheless, it can be asserted with confidence that these elections have been a victory for President Hassan Rouhani – not only in Tehran but also in many provincial cities, including those usually considered to be rather conservative. Elections to the Assembly of Experts, responsible for choosing, when the time comes, the new Supreme Leader, can also be seen as a victory for Rouhani: new, younger faces will make up about half of the new Assembly.
These elections can be seen as a referendum on Rouhani’s political program, including the July 2015 nuclear agreement. To realise his political objectives Rouhani can now count on a Majles in which the pro-Rouhani coalition will extend beyond the Moderates, who form the hardcore of his supporters. The coalition will include Reformists inspired by former President Khatami, and, on economic questions at least, a number of Conservatives who have chosen to support the nuclear deal because it entails the lifting of sanctions, as well as a significant quantity of representatives without clear affiliation, elected mainly on local grounds and ready to support any policy beneficial to their constituencies.
The Four Pledges of Hassan Rouhani
During his 2013 Presidential campaign Rouhani made pledges that fell into four categories: resolution of the nuclear crisis, return of prosperity, easing of constraints on social and political life, and defusing tensions between Iran and regional rivals.
Rouhani has rightly chosen to give an absolute priority to the first of these pledges, as a prerequisite for the fulfillment of the others. The obvious next choice will be the economy, because creating a credible prospect of prosperity is a prerequisite for his reelection in 2017.
Time is short, one of the most difficult challenges will be to loosen the grip of the Pasdaran and the Pious Foundations (Bonyads) on vast sectors of the economy, to pave the way for more efficient foreign investment.
Significant progress in relation to the easing of social and political constraints cannot be expected before Rouhani’s likely second term. That is not a tragedy because Iranian society, impervious to political ups and downs, is advancing inexorably, under its own steam, towards the model of an open society.
As for Rouhani’s fourth promise, defusing regional tensions, there too he will find the Pasdaran astride his path. The Pasdaran have been gaining legitimacy through their fight against Da’esh and other Jihadists in Iraq and Syria. They are not in a mood to compromise with arch-enemies of the Islamic Revolution in the region, or beyond. Rouhani will need all the authority and legitimacy conferred by the current elections to overcome this formidable obstacle.
A Fragile Middle Road
Even if the elections have strengthened Rouhani’s hand, the West can help Rouhani to realise his program. Let us not repeat the mistake of the Khatami years, when we were largely unmoved by the openings of a Reformist president, seeing him as a kind of lure manipulated by an ever-hostile regime. Thanks to that mistake we ended up with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Khatami’s successor.
But let us also keep in mind that some kisses can kill. As imperfect, as constrained as it is, the Iranian democracy is moving independently towards a form of maturity, towards a penetration of the political sphere by a spirit of balance and compromise, after many hectic episodes. Even the Supreme Leader seemed to point in that direction in a speech delivered a couple of days before the first round of the elections: “…We made of you an Ummah that moves on the middle path, says the Holy Koran… If you deviate from this straight path – whether to the left or to the right – this is not a middle way… However, on a road, some people walk faster and some walk more slowly. Walking fast on a straight line is not a bad thing!”
Let us not disturb this still fragile evolution by doing anything that could revive the Regime’s ever-latent concern about a “color revolution” engineered from abroad. To avoid that risk, our support for Rouhani’s program must take a legitimate form. The best message to transmit is that we wish for the whole of Iranian society, and all Iranian institutions, to move at their own pace in the direction of as more prosperous and more open country.
A Role for Europe
At this juncture, the opportunity to lead the West’s response is there for Europe’s taking. The United States is mired in the 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act and in devising additional non-nuclear sanctions. The Iranians see Europe as a traditional partner whose return is urgently needed, especially in the realm of advanced technology, where skills, experience and quality are not as available as in the Western world.
But if Europe wants to be fully welcome in Iran, it must commit itself to an important task: ensuring full implementation of the nuclear agreement. Absent that effort, mutual confidence will not emerge and the West will have to say goodbye to its still tenuous hope of a more cooperative Iran.
Of course, Europe must carefully monitor Iranian implementation of Iranian nuclear commitments. But in the coming years the main risks to last July’s agreement lie in the US quarter. It is to be feared that the United States will behave increasingly as a reluctant partner to this agreement, especially once President Barak Obama has left office.
It is to Europe’s credit that in 2003 it launched the negotiation to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. In the final stages of that negotiation, in recent years, Europe’s role was more modest. In the period of risk that lies ahead Europe should be ready to take the lead once more and act as the nuclear agreement’s guardian. Above all, if the United States is tempted to renege on the deal, Europe must stand firm and ensure that Iran continues to see advantage in meeting the nuclear commitments it has made in expectation of benefit.
A French version of this article first appeared in Boulevard Extérieur. Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.