Kuwait’s “new doctrine” has the potential to usher in a new era. It can either lead to radical change for the better, further decay, or entrenchment of the deadlocked status quo.
On February 26 around 60 percent of the Iranian electoral body voted in elections for the Parliament and Assembly of Experts – the religious body composed of 88 clerics responsible for electing the new supreme leader.
The early results in Iran’s parliamentary elections suggest that there will not be a solid majority. The conservatives are leading with 36 percent of the seats, followed by the alliance between pragmatists and reformists with 32 percent and independents with 32 percent of the 290-seat Parliament.
In the Assembly of Experts, instead, the pragmatists managed to gain a slight majority winning 52 seats while the conservatives took 36 seats.
The results of the Iranian elections have reinforced the role of the pragmatist front, led by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and current President Hassan Rouhani, within the Islamic Republic’s political arena. In other terms, the new Parliament will be less radical and likely closer to the center-right wing. Though the pragmatists and reformists are not the winners of the parliamentary elections, they have managed to gain an important minority, which will allow Rouhani’s government to consolidate its foreign policy and socio-economic strategies in the next two years. The Parliament will be composed of conservatives, pragmatists, and reformists. The conservatives are likely to have a small majority, but they might be more collaborative with the pragmatists and reformists over different political issues. The elimination of an important portion of the radicals, coming from the “Front of the Resistance,” shows support, at least for the next two years until the presidential elections, for the strategies of Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, particularly regarding political economy and foreign policy. The nuclear deal and the subsequent opening of Iran to the international community will probably gain more support from the new Parliament and it seems that the Iranian establishment, which is mainly influenced by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard, value this opening and are supportive at least in the short term.
The Assembly of Experts
If the results of the parliamentary elections demonstrate the direction of Iranian politics, the results of the Assembly of Experts elections do not seem to be so relevant. Allies of Rafsanjani and Rouhani garnered a large number of votes in Tehran, which has symbolic importance, however this will not effectively shift the balance of power in the assembly. According to the Iranian constitution, the assembly, which is tasked with nominating a successor to Khamenei, must make decisions by simple majority. The newly elected assembly has a slight pragmatist majority, but at least 12 of the members elected are independent and are close to the moderate conservatives. Therefore, despite the election of notable pragmatist figures, when it comes time to elect a new supreme leader, there will be an open battle between the conservative and pragmatist fronts. The rise of the pragmatists in the Assembly of Experts has been mainly triggered by the increased participation of the middle class and youth in elections, which in turn explains why notable radical ayatollahs, such as Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and Mohammad Yazdi, lost their seats.
What will be the main impacts of these electoral results on Iranian foreign policy?
- The Rouhani-Zarif axis will be consolidated and its role on domestic issues and foreign affairs will be strengthened.
- Iran’s opening toward the United States and European Union will be maintained at least for the next two years.
- Economic and commercial ties between Tehran and the main Western players (mainly the European Union and potentially the United States) will be encouraged and promoted, while economic and commercial relations with China and Russia could be reduced.
- There will be short-term investment security in Iran, meaning that the Iranian establishment will be willing to guarantee economic, banking, and social security in order to attract foreigner investments.
- The geopolitical role of Iran in the region could become slightly more moderate and pragmatic. There could be some willingness to reduce tensions with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.
- On the domestic level, the electoral results do not influence the polity or the structure of the Islamic Republic.
- The ideological framework of the regime will remain the same and there will be no significant changes in civil rights or increased freedoms.
- The intra-elite struggle continues. On one hand the pragmatist front, led by Rafsanjani and Rouhani, will be able to forward more policies, while the radicals, led by Mesbah Yazdi and Haddad Adel, will lose some of their political power. The reformists will maintain their position, but at the same time are quite marginalized by the pragmatists, who are minor allies.
- The supreme leader, even though he leaned slightly toward the conservative front on the eve of the elections, managed to keep his mediator role within the Iranian political arena. The election results are likely to be approved by Khamenei as all the candidates have been vetted by the Guardian Council, the members of which are partly appointed by the supreme leader. For this reason all the candidates – conservative, pragmatist, and reformist – are already approved by the Islamic Republic establishment and the supreme leader.
- Lastly, it will be very important to evaluate the reaction of the Revolutionary Guard toward the consolidation of the pragmatists during these elections. The Revolutionary Guard is probably the most relevant political, economic, and military force in Iran. The Revolutionary Guard may accept yielding some influence over foreign policy to Rouhani and Zarif in the Middle East, where the foreign branch, the al-Quds brigade, has been much stronger than the government. Or, the Revolutionary Guard could forward a counter-policy, which would try to create tensions with the pragmatists and avoid the opening of Iran toward the West. The real challenge over the next two to four years for Iranian domestic and foreign policy could be the internal tensions between the pragmatists and the Revolutionary Guard, with a supreme leader who is likely to act as a mediator.
Notably, 15 million Iranians did not vote in these elections. These citizens are mostly those criticizing or not recognizing the Islamic Republic system. Though they did not participate in the elections, they could be influential in the future of Iran, as well. Their influence might be mostly through their noninstitutional activities in civil society. This hidden opposition, mainly secularist and nationalist, could exercise its influence once it finds opportunities to express its demands on the political and social level. At the moment, its main arena is social media and the virtual space, fearing repression by the establishment.
However, the rise of the pragmatists is reinforcing the role of the Islamic Republic in the region. The next two years will be very important to evaluate how Iran will act on the global and regional level. If the Rouhani-Zarif axis manages to consolidate its policies within the Iranian establishment, this might push Iran further toward a domestic process of reform and make Tehran more rational in its foreign policy. Otherwise, if the Islamic Republic establishment, particularly the Republican Guard elite, feels threatened by the rise of the pragmatists, there might be a new intra-elite clash between the Republican Guard and the pragmatists, making Iran less stable and its policies more aggressive in the region.
Pejman Abdolmohammadi is a visiting research fellow at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. He is also a lecturer of political science and Middle Eastern studies at the American University “John Cabot” in Rome.
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