AIC's Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi was interviewed by a major Colombian daily newspaper on the recent Iranian elections for the Parliament and Assembly of Experts
Below, we present the English version of his interview
What do these elections represent for Iran’s future?
Hooshang Amirahmadi: We must distinguish the Parliamentary elections from those of the Assembly of Experts. The Assembly, though an important institution, is more stable and the elections did not significantly alter its composition. Its function is to appoint and supervise the Leader of the Revolution but that will come only after the current Leader passes away. The Assembly will not be in a position to challenge Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Leader. Nor will the Assembly change the institution of Leadership in any meaningful way in a post-Khamenei Iran unless political instability were to follow his death. The institution will remain unchanged in its core governance belief (guardianship of the jurists) as long as the Islamic Republic survives as an Islamic regime. However, far into the future, I guess, change will also come to this institution but that is less relevant to the country at present or in the foreseeable future.
In sharp contrast, Parliament has been more relevant to the nation’s ongoing life and has been less stable. It used to be a more powerful and meaningful institution than it has become in recent times. The elections were “engineered” to produce a centrist Parliament more in tune with the new direction of the Islamic system for accommodation with the West and less political rivalry at home. What it will actually mean to Iran’s future will depend on what happens next. For example, will the Rouhani Government be able to improve Iran’s economy in the immediate future, and particularly to increase employment for the youth and income for the less fortunate social groups? And will it deliver on its promise of more political and social openings for the educated middle class? If yes, then the elections’ impact will be most likely lasting. If not, then Iran will most likely go back to a more hardened domestic and international politics. In the latter case, the “hardliners” will again take over the state including the Parliament, something that happened at the end of the reformist President Khatami reign in 2005. It must be noted that the hardliners are still in the country and they will surely regroup and fight back, this time from inside the “revolutionary” institutions, and, of course, from the streets as they did under the Khatami presidency.
One thing is certain: in the foreseeable future, this election will not lead to widely acceptable reformed politics in Iran where the secular population is excluded from political participation. More than 80 percent of Iranians are politically secular. In sharp contrast, it may indeed produce a more subtle repressive domestic political situation as the Islamic regime may open to the West but tighten its grip on the population in fear of losing control. The number of those arrested under the pretext of being friendly to “Western penetration” has significantly increased in recent months. The election will not help the Rouhani government to improve the Iranian economy on time for the next presidential elections either. The country’s economic woes are just too huge and complicated to be resolved in a matter of less than two years.
Bottom line: Khamenei allowed the engineered election (as he did in 2013 with the presidential election) in the hope of improving Iran’s economy, more effectively controlling domestic politics, and reducing the external threat to the survival of his Islamic system. The perceived external threat emanates from a highly radicalized Middle East region where Islamic radicals like ISIL have made states highly unstable, and where animosity to the Iranian regime has significantly increased as has proxy wars between Iran and its Arab neighbors, Saudi Arabia in particular. Another source of concern for Tehran is the US presidential elections, which most likely will produce a more hostile government in Washington than the current administration of Barack Obama.
Iran is certainly very nervous these days and a centrist Parliament is to increase regime legitimacy internationally and reduce tension at home and aboard. Unless Rouhani delivers, if only partially, on its economic and political promises, he may lose the support of Mr. Khamenei and the working people of Iran. The JCPOA gave Iran some extra cash (which is being unwisely spent) but it also led to a perception of Iran as a weak state as Tehran “surrendered” to American pressure during the nuclear negotiations and its main ally in the region, Syria, became a “failed state.” Unfortunately, perception is reality in international relations, and any time in the past Iran has been perceived weak, its neighbors have challenged it as in the immediate post-revolution when Saddam Hussein invaded the country. The new Saudi challenges to Iran’s strategic depth in the region is a reflection of this perceived weakness in Tehran. Iran must make sure that this perception changes as otherwise the country will not be able to move forward in its economic and political plans.
What do you think of the new Parliament, which is described as a more “friendly” one for President Rouhani?
HA: There is a certain exaggeration regarding the new makeup of the Parliament just elected. First, the coalition of reformists, centrists and pragmatist (RCP) still remain in the minority (about 110 seats out of 290). The rest are “independents” (about 20) and conservatives (about 160). As a whole, however, this parliament will be more amenable to working with Rouhani but, as I mentioned above, the Parliament is not as powerful as it used to be and cannot always help if the matter at hand is not tasteful to the hardliners in revolutionary institutions (largely powerful unelected institutions). Rouhani may use the Parliament for whatever purpose he wishes for but he must also deliver results as otherwise, everything will fall apart again. The elections have raised expectations higher for a better economy and a more open politics. It is doubtful if these two can be delivered on time to keep all in good order.
What led the electorate to vote for a majority of reformists and moderate conservatives?
HA: The election tactics that the RCP used helped them to make certain gains. They entered the race as a “coalition,” that is, they voted as a group and for pre-set lists of candidates, and they put pressure both on the people to vote and on the system to allow them to run. More significantly, the coalition included “moderate” conservatives and certain questionable elements of the regime (e.g., three former intelligence ministers). Besides, while many reformists had been “vetted” as unqualified by the Guardian Council, there still remained a large group of “qualified” conservative candidates acceptable to the reformists in the coalition. Despite all these, their gains remained limited when compared to their gains some 16 years ago when they took over the Presidency and later on the Parliament.
Thus, as I said, there is a certain misunderstanding as to what happened in these elections. The hardline conservatives still control the Parliament but they are less hardline than their previous cohorts. This means that the Parliament as a whole will act more centrist than before but only if the conservative elements are convinced that the government policies do not open doors for uncontrolled foreign “penetration” and that the economy improves while the values of Islamic system are preserved. This is a tough balancing act to maintain. Khamenei is critical to the functioning of the Parliament as he can indeed direct the deputies to move to any direction he wishes. Besides, there is the Revolutionary Guards and other revolutionary institutions, including the Judiciary and the Friday Prayers, who have significant control over what goes on in the country.
What do you think of the fact that some hardliners such as Kazem Jalali, Ayatollah Ali Movahedi Kerman, Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Taskhiri, Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri and Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi ran on the reformists and moderates lists?
HA: The reform movement as we knew it is now dead in Iran. I mean the movement that made Khatami President and took over the Parliament in the 1997-2005 period. The movement died when President Ahmadinejad took over. The protest in 2009 (Green Movement) put the final nail in its coffin. Since then, reformist are divided and demoralized and many of their original leaders have fled the country. Other leaders, including Khatami, who has remained in the country, persona non grata, has concluded that the original movement was too radical for the Islamic Republic to accommodate, that it is currently too weak to challenge the status quo, and that the movement must redefine itself in more social terms (not just political), needs to broaden its base to include moderate conservatives, bring to its side individuals trusted by the system (particularly by the Leader), and move slowly and creepingly. The inclusion of the above personalities reflects this new thinking of “normalization” versus “democratization.” This is a thinking that I would not call reformist; it is better defined as “moderationist.”
Do you think that happened because the Guardian Council vetted so many reformist and moderate candidates?
HA: There was certainly practical consideration in including such individuals in the coalition with the reformists, but I believe a more fundamental reason is the fact that the original reform movement failed and the leaders were forced to redesign the movement, both ideologically and organizationally. However, in rethinking the reform movement, they essentially threw it out of the window in favor of a centrist approach that has no ideology or organizational character. Indeed, the original reform movement is now being melted down into a broader “regime maintenance” movement. It must also be noted that the original reform movement was left-leaning, while the current “moderationist” movement is right-leaning.
Do you think the electorate was aware of this?
HA: Let me begin by saying that the Islamic Republic has over the years highly dampened the “Iranian dream,” making people expect but increasingly expect less of its leaders. This trend has also been accompanied by almost total elimination of the traditional Iranian nationalism. The JCPOA was a major contributor to these trends. Indeed, the post-JCPOA Iran is less of a dreamer and much less of a nationalist nation. It is in this context that the presidential elections in 2013 and the parliamentary elections in 2016 took place. The electorate in Iran was also divided in these elections along rich-poor lines, with richer strata mainly voting for the RCP coalition while most in the poorer population stayed with the conservatives. The rich and most middle class people are happy with the JCPOA and look to the West as a source of new wealth and other opportunities. It must also be noted that participation in these elections was not as high as many previous elections. Indeed, the participation rate of 62 percent was much less than the participation rate (72 percent) for the presidential elections in 2013.
In Tehran, the participation rate was even lower (50 percent) and largely concentrated in northern Tehran where the well-to-do middle and upper middle class live. Indeed, less than 35 percent of southern Tehranis, largely poor, working class, and petty shopkeepers, participated in these elections. Outside Tehran, the so-called reformists were not as popular as in northern Tehran, with even some large cities, like Esfahan, electing predominantly conservative candidates. As I mentioned above, the composition of the coalition was not acceptable to all reformists and the less fortunate population did not participate in high numbers because they no longer believe that the Rouhani government represents their best interest. They see his government s representing the rich. This tendency of the current government in Tehran is well reflected in its spending policy and the purchases it is making in the West with the cash it earned from the JCPOA.
What do you think of the fact that the hardliners mentioned above ran on the reformists and moderates' lists?
HA: Ahmadinejad isolated a good number of the so-called hardliners and as a result they were gradually pushed towards the moderates. These conservatives still dislike the reformists but they opportunistically joined the RCP coalition so that they could win. I must also mention the fact that during the negotiations over the JCPOA, many “Principalists” or conservatives realized that the Leader has changed policy in favor of opening to the West and moderating factional rivalries at home. Indeed, during the nuclear negotiations, Khamenei took sides with Rouhani and only gave revolutionary lip service to hardliners who opposed the deal. Those opportunist conservatives who did not care about principles, changed sides and embraced the current policy to stay in power. Their reason to join in a coalition with the reformists was opportunistic and an election ploy.