Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a reformer. On the distorted spectrum of Iranian politics, the meaning of that label is less clear than it sounds, but relative to other Iranian politicians he is ready to advance relations with the West. His ability to do so is limited, however: There are powerful institutional checks on any president’s power and many of those positions are held by hardliners with an instinctive revulsion of better ties with the West.
The elections held last weekend in Iran hold out the tantalizing possibility of a shift in that balance of power. Rouhani and his allies made big gains in the balloting, an outcome that both signals the readiness of the Iranian people to change course and reduces the power of the hardliners to stop that shift. Unfortunately, the structure of the Iranian government entrenches conservative rule, but last week’s results hold out the tantalizing prospect of change.
Voters were selecting two sets of positions: members of the parliament and members of the Assembly of Experts, which selects the country’s supreme leader. While final results will take time — nearly 60 of the 290 seats in the parliament require runoffs — the overall outcome is clear. Reformist candidates and moderate conservatives hold more than half the seats in the legislature, while conservatives won 68 seats, a substantial drop from the 112 they held in the last parliament. This is a substantial shift from the previous legislature, in which reformers held just 10 percent of the seats. While boundaries among the groups are fluid — moderate conservatives join reformers on economic issues — the reformers’ position is certainly strengthened.
The results are a vote of confidence in Rouhani, in particular the nuclear deal that his government negotiated with the West which could signal the end of Iran’s isolation in the Middle East. Even more compelling for Iranian voters is the prospect of the lifting of sanctions that have exacted an excruciating toll on the economy.
Since 2013, Iran has lost 300,000 industrial jobs and an additional 1.3 million people have dropped below the poverty line. Inflation has fallen from a peak of 40 percent to just 13 percent, but household income is falling in many cities and rural areas, and most forecasts anticipate no growth in 2015. Corruption has been a problem, and there are fears the country’s economic managers may not be up to the task. Nevertheless, since the conclusion of the nuclear deal, Iran has been courting international investment and Tehran is increasingly a stop for governments and their business delegations when they travel the region.
Many conservatives prefer that Iran maintain its isolation. In some cases, they object to the terms of the deal, complaining that Iran gave up too much and that its sovereignty and pride have been compromised. In some cases, the objection reflects a genuine disdain for the West, a desire to maintain the purity of the revolution and avoid the pollution of its consumer-oriented secular culture. In still other cases, the objection is much more personal: Hardliners have done quite well from their iron grip on the economy. More economic opportunities will cut into their profits. In short, they are corrupt and seek to protect their interests.
The moderates’ gains look substantial, but even without the uncertainties surrounding the still undecided races, conservatives’ power remains formidable. The electoral map is skewed toward rural areas that tend to be more conservative: While the country’s eight largest cities have more than half Iran’s population, they fill a little less than 20 percent of the seats in the parliament.
Conservative power is boosted by the Guardian Council, a body dominated by conservatives, that vets all legislation passed by the parliament. And, finally, the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can still trump legislation. Reportedly, the reformers won a majority in the Assembly of Experts, which will pick Khamenei’s successor, but that makeup could change before he dies. In short, the conservative grip has loosened, but it remains strong. Iran continues to be a revolutionary republic and that will invariably constrain attempts by reformers — many of whom deserve the label only in relation to their opponents — to change the system.
Moreover, it is important to recognize the limits of Iranian policy changes that could follow. Iranians welcome engagement with the West, but they will, given the long history of meddling in their politics, retain suspicion of the United States. Relations with Israel will continue to be fraught and the government will still back groups such as Hezbollah to extend its influence in the region.
Nevertheless, Iran is moving in the right direction. Some of the country’s most prominent conservatives were defeated in last week’s vote. The public has backed the overall direction of Rouhani’s government, with its efforts to engage the West — and that policy has paid off. The nuclear deal lays the foundation for Tehran to emerge as an internationally accepted player in regional politics. The reformers learned after boycotting the 2006 ballot that they can and should be part of the political process. A foundation is being laid that could lead to the creation of a more responsible partner and regional power. Other nations will object to Iran’s emergence. The challenge for Japan and other countries is encouraging Iran’s evolution and being prepared for the backlash from those other regional governments.