Results from Iran’s elections last week show that reformists, centrists and independents—including many new faces—won seats in both parliament and the clerical Assembly of Experts at the expense of hardliners. Garrett Nada, the assistant editor of The Iran Primer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, discusses the implications.

Iranians holding their flag celebrate the announcement that Iran had reached a nuclear deal with world powers in Tehran, Iran, July 14, 2015. Iran and a group of six nations led by the U.S. said they had reached a historic accord on Tuesday to significantly limit Tehran’s nuclear ability for more than a decade in return for lifting international oil and financial sanctions.
Photo Courtesy The New York Times/Arash Khamooshi

What are the main messages of this Iranian election?

Voters took this opportunity to vent their frustration with hardliners, who have dominated parliament since 2004. This was the first election since Iran and six world powers reached a landmark agreement on the country’s nuclear program. So the results reflect approval of President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to improve Iran’s international standing and open up society.

The election also indicates that voting-age Iranians are engaged with the political process. Some 12,000 candidates signed up to run for parliament, a record for the Islamic Republic and roughly double the number who registered in 2012. The Guardian Council—an appointed body of senior jurists and experts in Islamic law—banned almost half of the candidates, many of them reformists. Still, some 62 percent of eligible voters turned out.

What does this mean for President Hassan Rouhani?

The election results were a referendum on Rouhani’s performance during his first two and half years in office. With more allies in parliament, he may be able to better negotiate economic and social reforms. He has so far fallen short on his campaign promises to expand personal freedoms and improve the economy. Regardless of parliamentary support, Rouhani will face the same constraints as in the past.

What might it might mean for Iran’s engagement with the international community?

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will still determine the limits for Iran’s re-engagement with the outside world. He is deeply suspicious of Western intentions and has cautioned against further diplomacy with Washington and even against buying American goods. In the run-up to the elections, he warned that the United States was trying to influence the vote.

Parliament has more of a say on domestic issues than on foreign policy. But President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif may have more flexibility in contacts with Western countries. Some of the harshest critics of Zarif and the nuclear deal lost their seats in parliament. One was Esmail Kowsari, who had been a member of parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, and who accused Zarif of wasting Iran’s time in the nuclear negotiations. After losing his seat, Kowsari alleged that the election results were “suspicious” and filed a formal complaint. Mehdi Koochakzadeh, a lawmaker who last year caused a stir by calling Zarif a “traitor” over the nuclear talks, also did not make the cut.

How much of a change will the election results bring to the parliament?

No faction won an outright majority, and in any case, factions are not as formalized and cohesive as political parties of the United States or Europe. But one clear change is that conservative factions will not be as dominant in the next parliament as they were in the past 12 years.

The Universal Coalition of Reformists, also known as the “List of Hope,” did better than expected. In Tehran, its candidates took all 30 seats. Conservatives and hardliners did better nationwide, but the List of Hope performed well given that many reformists had been barred from running.

The List of Hope exploited the nuclear deal and the subsequent lifting of sanctions. Mohammad Reza Aref, a former presidential candidate and a vice president under Mohammad Khatami, headed the list. Aref, the only reformist candidate in the 2013 presidential election, stepped aside in that race and helped Rouhani win against five rivals who divided the conservative vote among themselves.  

The winners also included some new faces, notably more women. Some 14 women gained seats in the first round of voting, the most since the 1996 election. Eleven are considered reformists. Several are outspoken. Parvaneh Salashori, a sociologist and university professor, told a journalist after the election that Iranian women should be able to decide what they wear.

And the conservatives in parliament?  

In the campaign, hardliners promised better livelihoods and increased security for Iranians while criticizing Rouhani for failing to deliver economic prosperity following the nuclear deal and the lifting of most international economic sanctions on Iran.

In Tehran, the “Grand Coalition of Principlists” list was totally routed. “Principlist” is a label typically used by those who stress the need to defend the principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Even the head of the list, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, a lawmaker since 2000 and a former parliamentary speaker, failed to keep his seat. Principlists and their conservative allies, however, held their ground better outside of Tehran.

Current parliament Speaker Ali Larijani won his seat from the holy city of Qom. He ran as an independent. He has referred to himself as a principlist. Still, Larijani is widely viewed as being relatively pragmatic. Unlike many other principlists, he ended up supporting the nuclear deal in 2015.

Finally, out of 290 seats, 59 will be contested in a run-off in April because candidates in some districts did not win the minimum requirement of 25 percent of all votes cast.

What is significant in the outcome of the Assembly of Experts election?

Reformist-backed candidates also gained in the Assembly of Experts, the 88-member clerical body that selects Iran’s supreme leader. And that is of real interest in this election because the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is now 76 years old. Furthermore, the assembly is elected only every eight years, so the group chosen last week may well choose Khamenei’s successor, and will likely do so from within its own ranks.

Reformist-backed clerics took 15 out of the 16 seats for Tehran. Many were on the “People’s Experts” list, led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. President Rouhani held the third place on that list. The group had aligned itself with the parliamentary List of Hope.

The prominent hardliner Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati barely kept his seat in the assembly by taking 16th place from Tehran. But two other key hardliners lost their seats. Assembly of Experts chairman Mohammad Yazdi finished in 17th place, and Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi took 19th place.

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