by Ellie Geranmayeh
Despite their limited choice, Iranian voters opted to back a strategy that diluted the power of radical hardliners within the Islamic Republic rather than conceding the political game to them. Last week’s election results strengthened the alignment between Iranian reformists, centrists (government supporters), and moderate conservatives aimed at weakening the hardliners. Former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, along with current president Hassan Rouhani, developed this alignment during the 2013 presidential race. In the lead-up to the February 26 elections for Iran’s parliament and Assembly of Experts, this trinity created the “List of Hope Coalition.”
After the first round of parliamentary elections, nation-wide results for the 290 seats have not been conclusively declared. But the existing strong majority in favor of those aligned with the most conservative factions has clearly been weakened. According to rough estimates, the List of Hope Coalition won 83 seats (gaining approximately 29 percent control). The conservatives and those affiliated with the “Principalists” camp won 78 seats (roughly 27 percent of the votes). Independents captured 60 seats (gaining roughly 21 percent of the votes)—while five seats went to minorities. An estimated 64-68 seats will be decided in a second round of voting expected in April. In the Assembly of Experts, the List of Hope triumphed in Tehran where it gained all but one of the 16 available seats. The body holds a total of 88 seats, the majority retained by conservative candidates.
As Rouhani enters the latter half of this presidential tenure, he will have to manage an array of opportunities and challenges connected to these elections.
First, Rouhani will have fewer obstacles in pursuing his overriding strategic objective of economic development. His chances of fulfilling this goal improved in 2016 given the sanctions relief that the implementation of the nuclear deal provided in January as well as the recent gains made by the List of Hope Coalition in February’s elections. The Rouhani administration orchestrated the timing of these events to reap the biggest domestic political gains in the aftermath of the nuclear deal. Despite the many hurdles that remain, Rouhani’s ability to deliver tangible economic relief has increased—as have the expectations from his supporters.
Rouhani’s economic advisors have long stressed the need for market liberalization, greater privatization, and legal and regulatory reform to encourage much-needed foreign investment. With greater legislative backing for his economic proposals, Rouhani’s administration can move more swiftly to introduce and implement policies that hardliners previously opposed as counter to their interests or Iran’s revolutionary ideals.
Second, the Rouhani administration will have more breathing room to engage with the West. As before, they will need to receive the green light to do so from the Supreme Leader. Going forward however, hardliners will have less opportunity to use parliament as a platform to oppose Rouhani’s foreign policy towards the West. The hardliners who openly criticized Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for walking alongside his US counterpart and those who made death threats against him for shaking hands with President Barack Obama have lost their seats in parliament. Rouhani’s existing and future cabinet members are also less likely to come under unreasonable scrutiny or risk impeachment based on their track record with the West. Although the radical power factions will have many outlets to continue their opposition to Rouhani’s policy of outreach with the West, they will have fewer chances to do so in parliament.
Third, Rouhani will have more weight in persuading the Iranian leadership that restoring relations with Saudi Arabia is necessary for regional and national security. Soon after the elections, Rouhani stated that the results paved the way for moderation and that the “era of confrontation was over.” This motto presumably also applies to Tehran’s relations with Riyadh. However, given the existing stalemate between Iran and Saudi Arabia on both the bilateral and regional levels, the outlook remains bleak for Rouhani to take advantage of this opportunity.
Fourth, on the domestic side, the new parliament is likely to provide Rouhani with backing on ad hoc initiatives that address human rights issues. Although Rouhani has advocated for greater civil liberties ever since his presidential campaign, his administration has made nominal efforts to advance these in any meaningful way. The threshold for progress remains low. Nevertheless, the reformists amongst the List of Hope Coalition will push for incremental improvements in civil and political freedoms. For example, the new parliament is likely to support a legislative bill already introduced by the secretary of Iran’s Human Rights Council for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences (which reportedly accounts for roughly 80% of Iran’s executions).
Finally, Rouhani and Rafsanjani are now in a relatively stronger position within the Assembly of Experts, which will likely perform its constitutional role of electing the next supreme leader during the course of its eight-year tenure. The high votes for the List of Hope Coalition in Tehran resulted in the expulsion of two out of the three most powerful hardline members within the Assembly of Experts whose thinking is closely aligned with former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Country-wide, this body retains its conservative majority and will be influenced by other power centers (most notably Ayatollah Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps). However, the List of Hope Coalition will compete for influence with the hardline powerbase within the Assembly of Experts and has enhanced the position of potential pragmatic candidates to replace Ayatollah Khamanei.
An immediate challenge facing candidates elected from the List of Hope Coalition will be to prove that they can actually work together in parliament and reach consensus. Even in cases of established coalitions, interests and ideologies tend to diverge, causing tensions that can at times delay and potentially paralyze decision-making. Given that the candidates in the List of Hope Coalition have a diverse range of positions on civil and political issues, reform in this area will be most challenging to agree on. The traditionally reformist representatives in the coalition run the risk of pushing the administration too hard too soon on the types of political reforms that Rouhani is unable or unwilling to deliver on.
A second complicating factor is that there will be many new faces in the legislative branch, particularly among the candidates backed by the List of Hope Coalition. In part, this was a natural consequence of the Guardian Council’s mass disqualification of the most experienced and well-known reformist candidates during the vetting process. This wave of newcomers will bring with it fresh ideas. But there will also be a gap in experience, with the younger parliamentarians facing a steep learning curve on the rulebook of the Islamic Republic.
Third, it is unknown which way independent candidates, who are likely to control around one-fifth of the seats in parliament, will sway on important issues. This makes them powerful enough to create a majority decision by joining forces with either the conservative/principalist factions or the pro-government/List of Hope Coalition. It is unclear and in some instances hard to predict where these candidates sit on specific issues. This means that they can be incentivized to vote both in support and against Rouhani’s policies.
Fourth, conservatives retain a sizable influence, even though the radical hardliners were purged in Tehran. The final round of parliamentary elections could strengthen their position, giving them more ammunition to obstruct Rouhani’s policies in parliament. In addition, although the elections enhanced the political standing of pragmatist leaders, the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence forces, both overwhelmingly driven by hardline ideology, still have significant powers to block government policies.
Finally, Ayatollah Khamenei has shown a general dislike for allowing any faction to consolidate disproportionate power over its rivals. The development of Rouhani’s relationship with the Supreme Leader can make or break his presidential legacy. So far, Rouhani has proven adept at creating consensus among pragmatic leaders across factional lines. In doing so, he has stressed that unity and moderation within the system is instrumental for the survival of the Islamic Republic. Much of his playbook is derived from his time serving as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, where his success hinged on striking compromises. His ability to continue this role will depend on maintaining strong personal relationships with Ayatollah Khamenei and with top Revolutionary Guard officers.
It remains to be seen how Rouhani can use the political momentum in the aftermath of the elections and the easing of sanctions to fulfill the opportunities and overcome the challenges facing his administration. Since his presidential campaign, Rouhani has managed to maintain a political alignment that has weakened the radical hardline grip on power. The latest developments are a clear indication that those who voted Rouhani into power continue to support this bid, even if they are dissatisfied with the pace of meaningful change.