Elections for Parliament in Islamic Republic of Iran held on February 26 did grab headlines in international media in terms of reporting substantial gains for reformists and moderates supporting nuclear deal recently brokered by the government of President Hassan Rouhani.
Pakistani media also reproduced some of these reports without going for any direct reporting or in depth analysis of political developments in an important neighboring country. Our electronic media is too busy in sensationalising our internal political circus to spare time and space for serious political analysis of regional politics, but even our print media doesn’t impress in focusing on political situation in our western neighbors, Afghanistan or Iran.
Be that as it may, it is important to know that apart from electing a new parliament the Iranian electorate also voted on February 26 for electing members for the extremely important forum, the Assembly of Experts, which is meant to elect the new Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic to replace Ali Khamenai. It is also pertinent to note that democracy in the Islamic Republic of Iran remains to be a strictly controlled affair. Before elections an oversight body called the Council of Guardians, which is dominated by conservative clergy, goes for vetting the list of candidates and takes decision on qualification or disqualification of every single candidate. The Council exercised this power on a massive scale before the recent elections but even then it could not stop significant gains of reformists and moderates in Tehran and other big cities. Reformists and their allies were able to win all 16 seats elected from Tehran to the 88 members Assembly of Experts. Prominent hard line conservatives like Mohammad Yazdi, former Chairman of the Assembly of experts and Mohammad Taghi Misbah Yazdi lost their seats. Ahmad Janati was the only well known hard liner to have retained his seat. Reformers and their supporters won all the 30 seats of parliament from Tehran. According to Reuters estimates, the new parliament is 30 percent reformist, 40 percent conservative, 17 percent independents and 13 percent seats requiring a run-off.
To understand the present political situation it is important to recall that Iran had experienced bitter and violent political polarisation in the aftermath of the massively rigged presidential elections in 2009 with the emergence of the Green Revolution movement that was brutally crushed by the conservative camp led by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenai and President Ahmadinejad. Large scale arrests, torture and even executions of political opponent of the regime were the means used for the suppression of the aforementioned movement. It seems Iranian political elites have learnt their lesson. They have become extremely cautious in view of large scale violence and bloodshed in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. An extremely isolated Iran could have been particularly vulnerable in a volatile region.
There are sensitive challenges of regional rivalries. The Saudi led Arab Sheikdoms are desperately trying to create an anti Shia’a and anti Iran alliance comprising of Arab and non-Arab Sunni states. The apparent weakening of US interest in the Middle East is creating a vacuum of sorts that is sucking in the Erdogan-led neo-Ottomon Turkey and Putin-led assertive Eurasian big power Russia to fill this perceived vacuum and in the process creating dangerous polarization. Sitting on the ancient Persian civilization, modern Iran cannot remain indifferent to these monumental developments in her immediate neighbourhood. It has already jumped into the fray and has expanded its political and military influence in an unprecedented fashion in the Arab countries. Iran is coordinating its regional moves with Russia against the NATO member Turkey although after the nuclear deal it is warming up to tacit cooperation with the west as well to defeat IS which is regarded a common enemy.
To meet these regional and international challenges a new political alignment has emerged in Iran. It became visible in the presidential election in 2013 when reformist Hassan Rouhani, the only candidate with a clear stand in favor of nuclear deal, attracted wide support of the electorate. The most important points of his agenda were brokering a nuclear deal with western powers, lifting of the crippling economic and financial sanctions and joining the mainstream economic development of the world. The February 26 elections have further consolidated this process paving ground for new initiatives of Rouhani government to expand economic cooperation with powers regarded as enemies after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The dilemma of the Iranian reformists has been creating a balance between their vision for cultural and political freedoms and their loyalty to the tenets of the Islamic Republic. They have been exuberant in their demands for socio-cultural freedoms and the role of civil society. But at the same time they have stopped short of demanding dismantling of exclusive theocratic system thrown up by the Islamic Revolution. The Green Revolution movement after the presidential election in 2009 was the most serious challenge to the core policies of the present system but the country’s ruling establishment showed no hesitation in crushing it with extreme ruthlessness. But in the dangerous regional scenario when Iran seemed to be going towards the brink the sophisticated Persian elites decided to go for a grand compromise. The focal issues in the recent electoral debates were less about expanding democratic freedoms and more about economic mainstreaming of the country. Reformists see greater hope for opening up of their society through expansion of economic relations with the world. As Amir Mahdavi, an Iranian analyst interestingly put it, it is a “triumph of Airbus over democracy”.
It doesn’t mean that conservative and reformist camps have evaporated. The lists of candidates mentioned by the BBC were called as British lists by the conservatives. Reacting to the electoral defeat of some high profile conservatives the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenai said in a statement: “Progress doesn’t mean being digested in the stomach of international arrogance, and preserving national dignity and identity are not possible except with comprehensive and homegrown development.” Apart from President Rouhani, two other political leaders have to be watched for their important future role. Former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani remains influential figure of the establishment also with outreach to reformers. Another former President Khatmi remains to be a popular figure whose list of candidates popularly known as list of hope published just in an online video drew strong support from voters.