Catching up: Iran

After a much-needed break, I’m going to try to get back to some regular blogging. But in order to do that, I’ve got to make some sense of what’s been going on while I’ve been away–for my own sake far more than for yours. This is part of a series of pieces over the next several days in which I’ll try to do that.

Hassan Rouhani, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Hassan Rouhani (left) and Hashemi Rafsanjani (via Middle East Institute)

The biggest story in Iran over the past couple of months was clearly the February 26 elections for the Majles (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts, the body that is officially tasked with choosing the next Supreme Leader should anything happen to the current one, 76 year old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Despite the conservative judicial establishment’s best efforts to rig the election in favor of hardliners, the ad hoc reformer-moderate-moderate conservative coalition that formed around the leadership of current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani won fairly stunning victories in both contests:

Iranian voters dealt hard-liners a serious blow in elections for parliament and an influential clerical body, favoring reformists and relative moderates who support last year’s nuclear deal in the country’s first elections since the landmark agreement, results released Monday showed.

Reformists, who favor expanded social freedoms and engagement with the West, won at least 85 seats, according to final results released by the Interior Ministry and broadcast on state TV. Moderate conservatives — who split with the hard-line camp and support the nuclear deal — won 73, giving the two blocs together a majority over hard-liners in the 290-seat assembly.

The vote isn’t expected to herald large-scale change in Iranian policies, but may make it easier for President Hassan Rouhani to deliver in areas such as promoting social freedoms and reforming the economy.

The “List of Hope,” on which both reformists and moderate candidates ran, also won a majority on the Assembly of Experts. But the AP isn’t just singing the typical cynical American song when it says that the vote won’t mean major changes in the Iranian government’s policies. For one thing, Khamenei is still running the country, and he’s not going anywhere–not for now, at least. For another thing, Iranian politics in the run-up to this vote basically broke down on two lines: support for the nuclear deal with the P5+1 and ties to former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The people I’m calling “moderates,” like they’re all part of one movement, are really only bound together by their support for the nuclear deal (voters like that) and the fact that none of them were/are tied to Ahmadinejad (voters didn’t like that). That group runs the gamut from people who are looking for wholesale reform of the Islamic Republican system to people who think the system is fine, but they thought the nuclear deal was a good idea. That’s not a workable political bloc in terms of setting policy, at least not right now, because it has no internal cohesion. Still, the vote itself was a sharp statement by the Iranian people, and the fact that several prominent hardline politicians were voted out of office added to the election’s magnitude.

One bit of good news is that around 20 women candidates won seats in the Majles, which is a new record. Sure, 20 out of 290 seats doesn’t sound like much–it’s only about 7% of the body. The Iranians have a long way to go before they reach true gender parity like we’ve achieved in America, where a whopping 19% of Congressional seats are held by women, who make up ~51% of the US population. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and any progress in this regard for Iranian women is welcome.

Here in the US, to the extent that there was any coverage of these elections at all, it seemed to me that there was more focus on the Assembly vote than on the Majles vote. This makes sense, if you assume that the aging Khamenei, who is known to have had at least one recent cancer surgery, isn’t going to survive this group’s eight year term. The Assembly will officially (though not without a lot of stakeholder input) name the next Supreme Leader, while the Majles can be overruled by the Supreme Leader and therefore seems to have little real authority. But the Majles helps set Iran’s political course, serving as both a representative of popular will and in turn serving as the public’s best window onto the discourse in Tehran. Iranian voters inform their decisions based on the debate inside the Majles, and any Supreme Leader would be playing with fire if he were to simply ignore or dismiss public sentiment altogether. Don’t discount the importance of the Majles vote, is what I’m saying here.

So what do the election results mean? If, and it’s a big if, the “List of Hope” can evolve into something like a working government majority, then it augurs what Brookings’s Suzanne Maloney called “a new force in Iranian politics, a durable coalition of moderates that can claim both popular support and traction among the system’s power brokers.” That would be a big deal, because it would mean a real counterweight to the hardline tendencies of the clerical and military establishment. Rafsanjani, who is a moderate these days (whether that’s a sign of his changing politics or of how far to the right Iran has lurched since the 1980s is an open question), won the most votes of any Assembly candidate, which should give him the power to shape that body’s makeup and might even result in Rafsanjani regaining the chair of the Assembly, though he seems to be supporting a compromise candidate at this point. There have long been rumors that Rafsanjani wants to succeed Khamenei, and maybe he does but he’s actually older than Khamenei, so the chances of that seem pretty slim.

The results may give Rouhani some space to pursue reforms in the economy, in judicial policy, in the political process, and in terms of human rights, but it’s not going to be easy. In one area, international affairs, Rouhani is on pretty solid ground. The election results showed pretty conclusively that the Iranian people prefer Rouhani’s policy of diplomatic engagement with the rest of the world over Khamenei’s instinctual isolationism and wariness, but whether he’s able to turn that support into clearance from the Supreme Leader to engage further with the US, Europe, the Saudis, etc. remains to be seen. Rouhani does seem to have ratcheted up his rhetoric about social and political reform both in the lead up to and in the aftermath of the election. He’s talked about the need for a “second JCPOA”–not a new international agreement, but an internally negotiated agreement on economic reform, the idea being that if Iranians can negotiate with the rest of the world over their nuclear program, surely they can negotiate with each other about how to fix the economy, to deregulate it and loosen the stranglehold that the Revolutionary Guard currently has over so much of it.

Rouhani has also begun attacking Iran’s political restrictions, first in his pointed criticisms of the Guardian Council over its rejection of so many reformist candidates for office, and lately in openly defying what has been a sort of unofficially official news blackout with regards to reformist former President Mohammad Khatami. Khatami, who was president from 1997-2005, is still pretty popular among Iranians, which is why the regime tries to stifle any public mention of him, but Rouhani is now praising Khatami in speeches and calling the media ban “illegal.” The president has remained reluctant, however, to address the indefinite house arrest of the two leaders of the 2009 Green Movement, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hussein Moussavi. Karroubi just wrote an open letter to Rouhani asking him to pressure the judiciary to put Karroubi on trial–Karroubi believes that a public trial, though it may well result in his execution, would be damaging to hardliners, and his current indefinite detention means that he’s being denied his constitutional right to a trial. Rouhani promised to address the Moussavi/Karroubi situation when he ran for president in 2013, but has consistently shied away from it since he took office.

Rouhani’s biggest challenge here is that he and Khamenei simply don’t see eye-to-eye on most of these issues, and Khamenei is obviously the more powerful of the two men. Shortly after the election, Khamenei publicly expressed regret that many prominent hardliners were defeated, and later the Supreme Leader took the occasion of his annual Nowruz address to yank Rouhani back into line a bit. Where Rouhani has called for reform and international engagement, Khamenei continues to talk about the “resistance economy,” which is his way of calling on Iranians (by which he means other Iranians, not himself) to sacrifice so that the country need not be dependent on foreign trade or energy exports to maintain itself. He rejected, explicitly, the idea of a “second JCPOA,” and though he didn’t name Rouhani when doing it, the message couldn’t have been clearer. Moreover, he criticized certain elements of the actual JCPOA and argued that the US hasn’t kept its end of the deal. And while there’s no evidence that he’s right, his arguments probably rang true for a lot of Iranians who are waiting for the economy to take off in the absence of sanctions.

Because Iran’s economy hasn’t taken off, though certainly it has improved under Rouhani’s administration from where it was under Ahmadinejad. For one thing, the current oil market is damaging Iran’s economy even as sanctions removal should be boosting it. But also, it’s going to take time for foreign companies to commit to Iran, both because the threat of crossing remaining sanctions still exists and because Iran isn’t a friendly place for foreigners to do business, so Rouhani is right to note that things aren’t going to improve overnight. One huge obstacle to Iran achieving the full benefit of sanctions relief has been the fact that US sanctions that predate the nuclear issue, and are therefore still in place, prohibit foreign companies and banks from doing business with Iran in US dollars. So the Obama administration may be planning to license “offshore dollar clearing houses for specific Iranian financial institutions,” so that those institutions could conduct business in dollars without being allowed access to US banks. This is something that will make is already making Iran hawks in Congress flip their lids, but for the US to lift sanctions while preventing Iran from actually seeing any benefit would be, in spirit if not in letter, violating the JCPOA. The economy is obviously a huge issue for all Iranians, but it takes on added significance now that the next major political event in Iran looks to be Rouhani’s run for re-election next year. He’s very popular right now, but he’ll need to demonstrate some economic progress over the next year to ensure that he remains in office.

The election results were bound to produce some kind of backlash from the hardline establishment, and in fact they probably already have. As part of am early-March military exercise, Iran test fired a number of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, in what is transparently an attempt by the Iranian military to antagonize the United States and other Western nations, and to show that they won’t back off of their ballistic missile program despite international calls for them to do so. Tehran officially insisted that the tests didn’t violate the JCPOA because they were conventionally armed missiles, which is accurate, but Iran’s ballistic missile program is the target of a whole separate UN resolution barring them from testing missiles that could carry nuclear payloads, so it’s still fair game in terms of sanctions. And, sure enough, in late March the US slapped targeted sanctions on people and firms allegedly involved in the missile program. Congress naturally wanted more than that, but the Obama administration was able to keep the response at a level that wouldn’t cause the Iranians to rethink the nuclear deal. The election may have been a vindication for the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with Tehran, but hardliners in Congress are as resistant to that sort of message as hardliners in the Iranian establishment can be.

So that’s Iran. I didn’t mention Iran’s continued involvement in Syria, because we already talked about Syria, and Iran’s support for Assad has clearly taken a back seat to Russia’s in terms of importance to the course of the war. I also didn’t get into the ongoing Iran-Saudi tensions, which just caused Jordan to recall its ambassador to Tehran due to Iran’s interference in the affairs of neighboring countries (the Saudis, of course, are utterly blameless in this regard). But as this is already really long, and we can cover Iran-Saudi tensions in a later post on Saudi Arabic, I figure we’ll leave that issue aside for now.

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