Electoral victories for Rouhani – is Iran set for reform?

Electoral victories for Rouhani – is Iran set for reform?

Rather than a portent for reform, Iran’s recent election results could reflect broader divisions in the country

Results in Iran’s general elections of 26 February were swiftly hailed as a victory for President Hassan Rouhani. The success of Rouhani’s centrist and reform-inclined ‘list of hope’ in the parliament was mirrored by the election of a majority of moderate candidates to the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with supervising and appointing the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic.

After his allies unexpectedly claimed all 30 seats in the capital Tehran, Rouhani himself sung the praises of ‘people power’. Some are now inclined to see the electoral results as a harbinger of major reform in the Iranian political arena.

Electoral outcomes may indicate popular support for such reform, but the circumstances in which the elections unfurled should not be discounted. In January, the clerics of the Guardian Council disqualified large numbers of reformist candidates from running in the poll, while reformist clerics, including Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, were also barred from running for the Assembly of Experts.

Reformists put on a brave face. Hassan Khomeini, despite being disqualified, urged Iranians to go out and vote, but, in effect, the electorate was only able to cast votes for a restricted, regime-approved field of candidates. In fact, the Islamic regime, in barring so many candidates, wrong-footed itself. Still smarting after the unrest in the wake of the disputed presidential elections in 2009, it needed a large voter turnout to be able to maintain its claim to political legitimacy, but it feared that disillusioned voters would stay at home. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was forced to entreat Iranians to show up on polling day.

In the event, voter turnout was respectable. It would seem that Iranians, despite being corralled within an electoral process defined by regime-imposed strictures, wanted to make their voices heard. Lacking bona fide reformist politicians to vote for, the electorate opted for the least-worst option, a group characterised as ‘pragmatic dealmakers‘, some of whom are not necessarily pro-reform but are, at least, opposed to the hardliners.

The vote must thus be read as much as a signal of the electorate’s disapproval of regime-aligned candidates as it is a sign of a vibrant democracy. In such circumstances, rather than representing a portent of imminent reform the electoral results may merely be an illustration of the growing divide between regime hardliners and the wishes of broader society.

This divide exists both regarding attitudes towards the political direction that the republic should take and regarding attitudes about Iran’s capacity for engaging more amicably with the West. Rouhani was elected to the presidency in 2013 on a platform of ‘prudence and hope‘ and inaugurated amid expectations, both inside Iran and in the global community, that he would work to restore deteriorating relations with the West. His Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif has stated his intention to ‘promote international understanding through dialogue and cultural interaction’.

Nuclear pledge

Central to Rouhani’s electoral appeal when campaigning for the presidency was his pledge to reach a nuclear deal and alleviate the economic sanctions imposed upon Iran. A growing chorus argues that Iran is a natural ally for the West in the Middle East, yet amongst hardliners in Tehran and Qom wariness about foreign influence, by its very nature pernicious, runs deep. Khamenei even warned during the recent electoral campaign against Western attempts to ‘infiltrate‘ Iran. He clings to anti-Western dogma and appears unsettled at the prospect of improved relations with the West.

The fact is, however, that since reaching a nuclear deal last year, Iran’s relationships with the West have shifted on many fronts. In his address to the Iranian people for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on 21 March, US President Barack Obama spoke of opening a ‘new window and beginning a new relationship’, highlighting that for Iran and America there is ‘a chance for a different future’.

Expecting Iran to suddenly morph into the standard bearer for Western interests in the Middle East strains the bounds of credibility, but regional dynamics are certainly conducive to a warming of relations

Obama has sent Nowruz messages to the Iranian people every year during his incumbency. While hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president these messages most likely fell on deaf ears in the corridors of power, but it can be safely assumed that Rouhani and his administration are much more receptive. Obama acknowledges that Iranian and US officials are ‘now talking on a regular basis for the first time in decades’. Some now wonder whether Iran may become the major Western ally in the Middle East, replacing Saudi Arabia – a prospect that terrifies Riyadh – and Turkey, with whom ties are increasingly strained.

Expecting Iran to suddenly morph into the standard bearer for Western interests in the Middle East strains the bounds of credibility, but regional dynamics are certainly conducive to a warming of relations. The process of re-establishing trade and investment links is already under way. Obama this year hailed Iran’s opportunity to ‘reintegrate itself in the global economy’.

In January, within days of the lifting of economic sanctions in the wake of the nuclear deal, European corporations were appraising business and investment opportunities in the Iranian market. Iran, of course, harbours enormous business potential with its vast untapped markets and a large well-educated, urbanised population, which has considerable spending power.

That said, it appears obstacles remain for those eyeing Iran as a potential market. Certain restrictions, a legacy of the sanctions regime, remain in the banking sector and for American businesses. It is likely, then, that Iran will first develop closer trade relationships with Europe, which, historically has been less suspicious of the Islamic regime than America has been. Indeed, the French aviation manufacturer, Airbus, was one of the first large corporations to capitalise on new opportunities in the Iranian market, signing a major deal earlier this year. Brazil, too, appears poised to expand trade and investment connections with Tehran.

As the moribund Iranian economy expands, Rouhani is likely to see his stocks rise further. Some warn, however, that the lifting of sanctions and the freeing-up of previously frozen assets will decrease the impetus for much-needed and overdue economic reform.

Surge of popularity

In the meantime, President Rouhani continues to enjoy a surge in popularity in the wake of sealing the nuclear agreement. He will see the February electoral outcome as further vindication of his political platform, including his foreign policy position. It would seem, too, that his strong mandate has emboldened him to confront hardline elements within the judiciary. During a televised broadcast from the central city of Yazd, he spoke highly of former president Mohammed Khatami, who is subject to a news media black ban.

Khatami’s story in many ways echoes that of Rouhani. A regime insider and cleric, Khatami won the presidential election unexpectedly in 1997, much like Rouhani did in 2013. With a reformist agenda and enormous popularity amongst ordinary Iranians, Khatami won a string of electoral victories, but he incurred the wrath of the hardliners, who feared his liberalising agenda and the reformist movement of which he was figurehead. The judiciary and state security apparatus worked to stymie his initiatives and disrupt the reformist movement, which then led to the rise of firebrand president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

So while the victories of Rouhani’s allies may appear cause for celebration, the president still has a careful balancing act before him. He must reconcile the aspirations of the electorate, which appears to want political reform and improved relations with the West, with the conservative inclinations of regime hardliners, who still control the levers of power in the Islamic Republic. If he falls foul of either he may suffer the same fate as Khatami did. If that were to happen the prospects for internal reform and normalising foreign relations would look decidedly grim.

Featured image
Hassan Rouhani – elected to the presidency in 2013 on a platform of prudence and hope. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

William Gourlay is a researcher at the Middle East Studies Forum in the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University. He is also completing a PhD, looking at Kurdish identity and citizenship at Monash University.

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