China Is Not Ten Feet Tall
How Alarmism Undermines American Strategy
These days, news from the Middle East is usually disheartening, filled with terrorism, beheadings, civil wars, failing states, refugees, and sectarianism on the rise. But this week, there was finally some good news, and it came out of Iran.
A year after signing a landmark nuclear deal with the P5+1, Iran held two elections, one for its parliament, the Majlis, and one for the Assembly of Experts, a clerical council that selects the supreme leader. The vote, which coincided with the 110th anniversary of Iran's first parliamentary election, saw some 62 percent of the Iranian electorate—or 34 million people—peacefully demonstrate their commitment to the ballots. Unlike the disputed election of 2009, in which incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was accused of electoral fraud and which sparked weeks of protests, the vote seems to have been relatively clean. All in all, it should leave Iran even more politically stable than it already is.
To be sure, some observers, such as former Speaker of the House John Boehner, have dismissed the elections as inconsequential. The Guardian Council, they point out, disqualified massive numbers of moderates before the vote. The naysayers, however, are wrong. Despite its profound flaws, the ballot box has been firmly established as the only game in town, and the outcome of this vote has placed Iran on the path to gradual and stable change while every other country around it is imploding.
Even with their candidate list more than halved by the Guardian Council, the conservatives lost their solid control of the institution, and moderates were able to win at least one-third of the seats in the parliament. The political orientation of the Assembly of Experts, meanwhile, has remained the same. Although the conservatives maintained their majority, moderates, who were among the country’s top vote getters, are well positioned to play a more influential role than before.
The election’s final tally will be announced in a few weeks, but it is already clear that the fulcrum of Iran’s political spectrum has shifted away from the right toward the center, a process that began with the election of President Hassan Rouhani two years ago and was reinforced by the historic nuclear deal. The president will now have an even greater popular mandate to implement his economic agenda, the nuclear agreement, and rapprochement with the West.
Before the election, Iran’s conservative Guardian Council vetted all parliamentary candidates and disqualified many of them without any explanation. In the end, about half of the 12,000 candidates for the 290 parliamentary seats were rejected, which was a slightly higher rejection rate than for the 2012 presidential race. Although some of the candidates were rightly disqualified for lacking the constitutional qualifications, others were rejected for presumably political reasons. Substantially more reformists and moderates were disqualified than conservatives. More candidates from the urban areas were likewise barred from running; urban candidates tend to be more moderate.
After the massive disqualification, some 6,200 candidates campaigned for parliamentary seats. In the absence of any functioning political parties, rival factions and well-known politicians and clerics supported different candidate lists, and voters tended to select the lists of figures with which they identified. The result was the inauguration of a new generation of legislators, including many more women than are seated in the current Majlis.
The parliamentary election’s most dramatic showdowns came in Tehran, a trendsetter in Iranian politics that is home to more than one-fifth of the country’s population of 80 million. By virtue of its size, Tehran alone has 30 seats in the Majlis. Although the conservatives campaigned aggressively in the city, all 30 seats went to pro-government and moderate candidates.
The importance of this sweep cannot be overstated. First, it saw the crushing defeat of some of the best-known conservatives and most outspoken opponents of the nuclear deal. For example, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, former chair of the Majlis, failed to regain his position in the next Majlis. And Mohammad Reza Aref, a popular reformist who served as a vice president under former President Mohammad Khatami, received more votes any other candidate in the country. Second, legislators from Tehran have historically played a key role in the Majlis, both in the pre- and postrevolutionary periods. Mohammad Mossadegh and his allies, for example, who constituted a small minority, led the Majlis to pass the historic bill to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. Iran’s moderate legislatures are therefore poised to be a formidable power in the new Majlis. Finally, the deputies from Tehran have more access to the media and to Iran’s major economic centers and therefore are better equipped to guide the country’s future.
This was a particularly bad year for incumbent Majlis deputies. Approximately 70 percent of them, mostly conservatives, lost their seats. To be sure, many did hold on to their seats, and the conservatives did do well in some large cities, in many small cities and towns, and in most rural areas. So although the conservatives lost their substantial majority, they were able to sustain a tenuous plurality, with the Majlis divided among moderates, conservatives, and independents.
Since no legislative bloc is likely to have a decisive majority in the new Majlis, it will be necessary to form coalitions to pass legislation. And here the pro-government bloc has a clear advantage over the conservatives. Both moderates and conservatives will try to win the support of the independents, many of whom come from provincial areas and seem to be more practical than ideological. In the past, they have been more inclined to align themselves with whichever bloc is in power in order to benefit from government largesse and developmental projects.
Whether the independents’ past strategies will hold this time around will be seen in the selection for the next Majlis chair, which will be decided when the tenth Majlis is inaugurated in late May 2016. And even if the independents don’t side with the moderates, it is still abundantly clear that Rouhani will face much less opposition to his economic and foreign policy initiatives in the new Majlis than he confronted in the old one.
The key job of the 88-member Assembly of Experts is to choose the supreme leader. The men—no women are allowed, nor are nonclerics—can constitutionally remove the supreme leader as well, but they have never exercised that power. Considering that the new assembly will serve until 2024 and that the current supreme leader is 76 years old, the election for this body is particularly significant this year.
In the run-up to the election, the Guardian Council disqualified a large number of candidates for the Assembly of Experts as well. In fact, approximately 77 percent of the candidates were rejected. Most notable among them was the reform-minded Hojatoleslam Hassan Khomeini, the charismatic grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. As a result of this massive disqualification, in a few provinces there was only one candidate running.
Although the conservatives walked away from the vote maintaining their control of the assembly, it does matter who was reelected, who lost, and how many votes each candidate received. A top vote getter in the country, for both the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts elections, was former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is an ardent supporter of the nuclear deal and détente with the United States. Similarly, Rouhani received the third-highest number of votes among the candidates competing for the assembly. And at least 15 candidates whom Rafsanjani publicly supported were also elected. Rafsanjani, who also used to be chair of the assembly, and his supporters will thus be a force to be reckoned with.
It is equally revealing to look at who was not reelected. Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, former head of Iran's judiciary and the current conservative chair of the assembly, lost. Ironically, in 2015, he had defeated Rafsanjani for the chairmanship of the assembly. Archconservative Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi lost as well. A great supporter of former President Ahmadinejad, Mesbah-Yazdi was once a favored candidate among some conservatives to become Iran's next supreme leader.
Although the moderates, under Rafsanjani's leadership, will still constitute a minority in the Assembly of Experts, they might be able to reach out to some traditional conservatives to prevent the hard-line conservatives from imposing their will should the assembly have to choose the next supreme leader. The first test is who, in the coming months, will be elected for the leadership of the assembly.
Although moderates and reformists performed much better than even they had expected, it would be unwise to bank on rapid change, particularly in Iran's domestic politics. The Islamic Republic was institutionally designed to resist radical swings. Moreover, the conservatives and the status quo forces remain in control of the important organs of command, such as the judiciary, the Assembly of Experts, and the security and military forces.
The election for the Assembly of Experts will have no discernible impact on politics until the body has to deal with the sensitive issue of succession. Meanwhile, the new Majlis will be much more cooperative with Rouhani than its predecessor. This is not to suggest that there will be no tension between the executive and legislative branches and the Majlis will become a rubber-stamp institution. Far from it. The branches will still clash on matters related to the national budget, developmental projects, and civil liberties.
But in the three major areas, the new Majlis is likely to become more cooperative: attracting foreign investments, implementing the nuclear deal, and improving relations with the West, particularly with the European Union. After all, this is exactly what a large portion of Iran's electorates demanded when they went to the polls.
In a recent trip abroad, Rouhani signed two multibillion-dollar deals with Italy and France, including one for the purchase of a large number of Airbus aircraft. He is also seeking to attract foreign investments, particularly from Europe. The fact that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has met with a few European leaders indicates that the strategy of attracting foreign investment has his critical support. Having closed its doors to the West for more than three decades, Iran now has decided to crack them open again, which will require lots of revisions to its laws on foreign investments. It is good for Rouhani that he now has a Majlis that will be willing to try.
Full implementation of the nuclear deal is essential for attracting Western investments. Here, too, the new Majlis is much less likely to obstruct, since a good number of the most outspoken opponents of the deal were soundly defeated. With a more moderate Majlis, the implementation of the nuclear deal is likely to proceed rather smoothly. The recent elections also mean that Rouhani and his minister of foreign affairs, Javad Zarif, have more popular backing for their moderate foreign policy, which, among other things, is designed to lessen tensions with the United States. And that is a good thing for both countries.