A moderate victory?

The Iranian elections should not be viewed as the final word in the political struggle between the wielders of power.

Elections in Iran (photo credit: REUTERS)
Elections in Iran
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE LATE February elections for the Iranian parliament and Assembly of Experts constituted a first test of relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s leadership, after the nuclear agreement he shepherded and the subsequent lifting of economic sanctions on Iran. Nationwide engagement in the electoral process was intense. Indeed, in light of the high voter turnout –approximately 60 percent – the authorities were compelled to keep the polls open for a few hours after their scheduled closing times.
The element of “choice” in elections in Iran differs from that in the West. Of the thousands of registered candidates, only those who successfully passed the vetting process of the Guardian Council (12 clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader, the ailing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) were permitted to run.
The wide-scale disqualification during the approval process sparked a bitter public confrontation, led personally by Rouhani and his patron, former president Ali Rafsanjani. This in turn forced the Guardian Council to reexamine the disqualifications and approve some of the previously debarred candidates.
Even if the division of political groupings in Iran into conservatives, moderates and reformists does not precisely reflect the views of their members and has been ridiculed by the Supreme Leader, it nonetheless distinguishes between two major blocs within the Iranian political arena: the camp that endorses the policy led by Rouhani, with the public support of Rafsanjani, and the more extreme camp, led by the Revolutionary Guard with the partial support of the Supreme Leader. The two camps remain divided on a number of fundamental issues, from attitudes toward the nuclear agreement and the US to the core elements of economic policy.
The election results indicate a significant shift in the balance of power between the two groups. The Assembly of Experts, which consists of 88 members elected for a term of eight years, is the body authorized to choose the Supreme Leader’s successor when the time comes. According to the somewhat surprising results, Rafsanjani, in first place, leads the list, with more than 50 percent of the members of the Assembly belonging to the moderate camp, thereby significantly reducing the power of the ultra-conservatives who had previously controlled this important body.
Moderates also won more than half of the 290 seats in the Majlis, the parliament, whose major powers include approving the appointment of government ministers and the state budget, and the authority to summon the president and his ministers for hearings and to hold votes of noconfidence in them.
As he repeatedly argued in public addresses on the eve of the 2013 presidential elections, Rouhani sees the nuclear agreement as of the utmost importance for Iran’s economic future by lifting the sanctions and opening the country to foreign investment. This worldview is not the product of sympathy for the West or a fondness of Western culture, but stems rather from an accurate reading of Iran’s difficult economic situation and its impact on the public, particularly the younger generation, which has been the chief casualty of the country’s high unemployment rate, inflation and international isolation.
The ultra-conservative camp, on the other hand, opposed what it sees as the concessions Iran accepted as part of the nuclear deal. It is also increasingly concerned that economic openness to the West could entail cultural penetration with a particularly strong impact on the younger generation, leading ultimately to a change in Iran’s revolutionary character.
Khamenei, who holds similar views, has repeatedly emphasized the need to protect the country from Western influence, and continues to classify the US as the Islamic Republic’s principal enemy.
Against this background, the recent elections were a vote of confidence for Rouhani’s policies. The results were a clear statement by the younger generation, which accounts for more than 60 percent of the Iranian electorate, of their resolve to provide the president with the political tools he needs to make good on his electoral promise of “a better future.”
In order to keep that promise, Rouhani needs a more moderate parliament that will enable him to move forward with the economic measures he plans to implement, which include reducing the Revolutionary Guard’s role in the economy, fighting widespread corruption and encouraging desperately needed foreign investment.
With regard to Israel, the key question is whether the moderate camp’s electoral success under Rouhani’s leadership will lead to a change in Iran’s regional policy.
The most influential player in this sphere is the Revolutionary Guard, which is deeply involved in the fighting in Syria and Iraq, responsible for relations with Hezbollah and the provision of aid to the Houthis in Yemen.
So far Rouhani has not been greatly involved in these matters, and it is debatable whether he will be able to translate his increased strength in the domestic arena into greater influence over regional policy.
One of the goals that the West, in general, and the US, in particular, had hoped to achieve from the nuclear agreement was Iran’s integration into the region as a positive player contributing to regional stability, given the scope of its influence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
Significantly, however, the Supreme Leader directed the negotiating team to refrain from engaging on regional issues.
He continues to support the positions of the Revolutionary Guard and the ultraconservatives in the political arena, who seek to project Iranian power in the region in a manner that will help further what they regard as Iran’s foremost national interest: reducing and ultimately terminating America’s regional influence and presence.
That being the case, no changes in Iranian regional policy can be expected in the short term. This was reflected in the recent statement by Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon on the provision by Iran of financial support to the families of captured or killed Palestinian terrorists and those among them whose homes have been demolished.
Indeed, there is little difference between the positions of Iran’s radical camp toward Israel and those of the camp classified as “moderate.” Indeed, it was Rafsanjani himself who intimated that one nuclear bomb would be enough to destroy Israel. Still, in the medium and long terms, if Rouhani succeeds in promoting his economic agenda and openness to the West, Israel may be able to ask its allies in the West to use their economic leverage to get Iran to tone down its anti-Israel positions.
Overall, the pragmatic, more moderate camp in Iran secured an extremely impressive and significant electoral achievement in two ruling bodies. In the years to come, the Assembly of Experts will most likely be the body that determines the country’s next Supreme Leader, and its moderate majority will seek to select someone who reflects its views. As a religious figure, Rouhani may even regard himself as a suitable candidate for Supreme Leader when the time comes. In the Majlis, the parliamentary majority secured by the moderate camp will enable it to advance its economic policy, with the aim of moving Iran along a path of development and progress after years of damaging sanctions.
The elections, however, should not be viewed as the final word in the ongoing political struggle between the major wielders of power in Iran. On the one hand, the electoral victory, along with the nuclear agreement and the lifting of sanctions, has strengthened Rouhani’s position in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for next year.
On the other, he faces difficult political struggles with the ultra-conservatives, who have no intention of relinquishing their positions of power in the economic sphere or their views on foreign policy and religious ideology. They will seek to challenge him in the many areas in which they still wield strong influence, especially in the regional arena – where they remain the dominant force.
Sima Shine is a former head of research in the Mossad and until recently served as deputy director of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs responsible, inter alia, for the Iran file. An earlier version of this article was published by the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.