Iran’s Zombie Democracy Comes Back to Life

Reformists were on the verge of being excluded from Iranian politics. Now they're back at the center of the action.


Once again, elections in Iran have confounded the expectations of watchers of the Islamic Republic. President Hassan Rouhani’s allies seem set to control at least 100 seats in the 290-member parliament, and have seized a decisive majority in the Assembly of Experts, which will choose the heir to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a result, the decade-long and relentless effort of hardliners to exclude all voices other than their own has been decisively blocked, and perhaps even reversed.

The election has proven that the rumors of the death of Iranian politics were greatly exaggerated. The prospects for a revival of the art of the (negotiated) deal on a host of domestic issues — especially economic policy — are greater now than at any time in recent memory.

The “surprise” results of the Feb. 27 poll for the 88-member Assembly of Experts and the parliament are not a clear cut or decisive victory for reformists, however. Hundreds of their leading lights were not allowed to run, and some of the coalitions that that the reformists supported included conservatives who had been associated with the 2009 crackdown on the Green Movement. Nevertheless, these developments require giving politics in the Islamic Republic serious analytical attention, and even respect.

As was the case with Rouhani’s surprise election in 2013, such nuanced attention to the Iranian political system has often been lacking in U.S. policy circles. Indeed, in the weeks leading up the Feb. 27 elections, the Internet was full of opinion pieces bleakly predicting hard-line victories, or warnings against “hyping” the elections. The reality turned out to be different.

In the grey zone of electoral politics — as we well know in the United States — there is a spectrum of possibilities: good, bad, and ugly. Iran is no exception. Indeed, in order to grasp the full impact of political contestation in Iran requires addressing two closely linked issues: first, the rules of the game that animate Iran’s semi-autocracy; and second, the critical role that elections and parliamentary politics could play in the efforts of reformists and other factions to make those rules work for them and the forces they represent.

Let’s begin with the rules, which pivot around one master norm: In Iran, political legitimacy has long required a readiness of all key factions to participate in a power-sharing system. These factions include reformists who support former President Mohamed Khatami and the short-lived Green Movement of 2009, mainstream conservatives who are more accepting than reformists of Iran’s existing political system but are nevertheless open to incremental change, and hard-liners who reject change of any kind and seek to maintain a tight lid on all forms of criticism of the current system.

Moreover, the distribution of institutional power clearly favored some groups more others. But if the system was in no way equitable, the rules of the game precluded the consolidation of power by any one faction. Because compromise, conciliation, and negotiation have been a key to mediating social and political conflicts, it is essential that elections for the president and the parliament allow for real competition, and that they demonstrate a measure of genuine unpredictability and fluidity.

This rule was repeatedly and violently violated during the era of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At that time, hard-liners in the security apparatus and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) sought to limit the power of many traditional conservatives, and even more importantly, to permanently banish the two key wings of the reformist movement — Mohammed Khatami’s Republican Left and Hashemi Rafsanjani’s Republican Right — from formal politics. That effort proved destabilizing, because it created a polarized political arena that put the Supreme Leader in the unenviable position of being identified as the defender of one faction, rather than the ultimate arbiter of the political game in its wider sense. As Khamenei probably realized in the wake of the 2009 electoral protest, a full closing of the political space works against his own interests and those of the system itself.

Rouhani’s 2013 election provided a critical opportunity to temper the destabilizing consequences stemming from the hard-liners’ power grab. On the one hand, it created an opening for reformists to reassert their voice; on the other hand, it offered Khamenei a chance to reestablish a measure of credibility, or even cooperation, with leaders who did not share his political views, such as former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. As with so many semi-autocracies, those rules called for a murky middle ground in which elections are neither completely constrained nor fully open — a complex balancing act, no doubt, but one that served the interests of a divided political elite and the diverse forces they represent.

The challenge facing Rouhani — and especially his allies in the reemerging reformist camp — is how to sustain this delicate balancing act without provoking a backlash from the supreme leader or the IRGC, which has the capacity to punish groups whose actions they deem a threat to the political system itself. Indeed, this challenge was underscored by the initial decision in January of the Guardian Council, which is controlled by Khamenei and hard-line forces, to disqualify nearly all reformists from running for the parliamentary or Assembly of Experts elections.

That decision suggested a return to a scenario whereby hard-liners would once again exclude their rivals from the political game. If left intact, it might have forced moderate leaders such as Rouhani — who was trying to bridge the reformist-conservative divide — to choose between remaining silent, and thus losing credibility in the wider public, or defying the radical hard-liners, and thus encouraging their further wrath. This dilemma haunted Rouhani and his allies all the way up to the final days before the Feb. 27 elections.

Still, if the recent elections suggested any one conclusion, it is that Iran’s leaders — and not merely reformists — have learned that the most effective way to mitigate this dilemma is to forge a peace deal with some of their rivals. The prospects for such a deal emerged when Rouhani publicly assailed the Guardian Council, asserting that the parliament “is the house of the people and not a particular faction.”

While such outspoken words might have provoked a harsh response from Khamenei, he sounded a note of muted but still important conciliation. All Iranians, the supreme leader argued, even those who opposed the system, should vote. Moreover, when the reformist-aligned Hassan Khomeini — the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic — provoked consternation in hard-line circles by announcing his candidacy for the Assembly of Experts, Khamenei hinted that he would not oppose his candidacy.

While the Council of Guardians ignored this signal and chose instead to disqualify Hassan Khomeini — along with thousands of other would be candidates — persistent criticism of the council’s actions from Rouhani, Rafsanjani, and others compelled it to readmit some 1,500 aspiring candidates — political novices, to be sure, rather than veteran reformists, but whose ranks included many supporters of Rouhani and his allies.

In a larger sense, these dynamics suggest a grudging readiness by Iran’s top leadership to negotiate a political accommodation that could in time favor greater pluralism and openness in the Islamic Republic. This seems to be the objective of Iran’s reformists, who — with Rouhani’s support — have signaled a growing measure of political sophistication, strategic vision, and unity.

This has been born out of years of conflict within their own ranks and with their rivals in the conservative camp. The “Coalition of Hope,” which to the distress of some reformists included prominent moderate conservatives, reflected a growing sense that the reformists might be best served by cooperating with other factions in order to isolate Iran’s hard-line forces.

How this alliance will play out in parliament is anybody’s guess. Although the reformist-oriented Coalition of Hope won all 30 of Tehran’s seats, and while reformists can probably count on at least another 70 allies, the new parliament will be divided between reformists, independents, pragmatic conservatives, and hard-liners. Given that many conservatives are likely to resist reformist pressures to push for politically liberalizing legislation, it is far more likely that the new parliament will focus on economic issues. Indeed, as the removal of sanctions proceeds apace, and the prospects for foreign investment — particularly in the oil sector — emerge, Rouhani and his allies will look for every chance to make good on his promises of a brighter economic future.

This focus on economic issues carries with it huge political significance. Hard-liners obsessed with the paranoid idea of “cultural invasion” view economic reform as bringing with it a nearly existential ideological threat. For them, Western and economic investment means the “infiltration” of liberal Western ideas and values. Such calculations will find some sympathy from leaders of the IRGC. Still reeling from the domestic aftershocks produced by the nuclear deal — and confronted by the real prospects that it will not only endure, but also help ease Iran out of its international isolation — the IRGC will work hard to shore up its domestic position, and even harder to shore up Iran’s regional position. The proof of such calculations is most grimly evident in Syria, where Iran’s leaders have used whatever means at their disposal to prevent the fall of President Bashar al-Assad, a key regional ally. While there are reformists who regret Tehran’s embrace of the Assad regime, they will not question this policy in ways that will jeopardize efforts to pry open the political arena at home.

How such calculations play out will depend in large part on Supreme Leader Khamenei. While the Islamic Republic is no simple theocracy, the supreme leader has the constitutional authority to chart his own vision of the conflicting secular and religious principles over which the country’s founders have fought since the very early days of the revolution.

This is why the results in the Assembly of Experts election are portentous: Not only did Rouhani and Rafsanjani prevail, scoring enormous vote totals, two of the assembly’s most notorious hard-liners — Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi and Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi — were soundly defeated. Moreover, it is estimated that at least 50 members of the Assembly are sympathetic to Rouhani’s call for change and greater openness — a clear departure from an Assembly that had long been controlled by a mix of traditional and ultra-conservatives. For these reasons, the struggle over selecting a new leader is likely to be unusually contentious, and also responsive to an unprecedented degree to wider social and political trends in the country at large.

Many Iranians, including those who are close to or part of the reformist movement, readily acknowledge that these developments fall far short of a democratic revolution. But as a former student of mine reminded me, having just returned from a short trip to Tehran, as Iranians look out into a battered region and assess the aftershocks of political rebellion in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and especially Syria, many hope to chart a workable alternative to confrontation and polarization. This requires working through, rather than against, the existing institutions of Iran’s semi-autocracy.

Their opportunity may have opened up, in part as a result of securing the nuclear deal — a development that could diminish U.S.-Iranian conflict in ways that hardliners find profoundly unsettling.


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