Two cheers for the Iranian election
Iran’s surprising election results are just the latest event to be digested by these extreme
The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of those topics which seems to unhinge analysts of all stripes, leading to two entirely different (and wholly contradictory) narratives emerging. Either Iran is effortlessly on its way to dominance in the region, or the whole place is just about to fall apart.
As the president of a global political risk consulting firm, I can tell you – that while possible – neither of these narratives is likely to survive contact with reality.
As such, Iran’s surprising election results are just the latest event to be digested by these extreme, and wrongheaded, dueling narratives which all too often reflect the wish fulfillment of their adherents, rather than facts on the ground. All 290 seats in Iran’s parliament were up for election, along with the 88-member Assembly of Experts.
The Assembly, a body created to decide who the next supreme leader ought to be should the need arise, is particularly important at present. Grand Ayatollah Khamenei is 76 and has suffered from prostate cancer; given the eight year terms the Experts serve, it is not ghoulish to suggest that it is highly likely they will be empowered at some point to choose Iran’s next supreme leader.
Both these bodies have long been dominated by conservatives clustered around Khamenei himself. As suspicious of the recent opening to the west – symbolized by the nuclear deal – as they are of political pluralism and a truly open market, the dominant conservatives have held back Iran’s economic prospects for years.
Things reached a nadir during the comically inept presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an economic illiterate who drove the Iranian economy into the sand. It was only because things had reached such a pass that the moderate, technocratic present administration of President Rowhani was given a chance.
But the election results, serving as they do as a referendum on both the Rowhani government and the recent nuclear deal, amount to unambiguously good news from a western perspective, if only to a point. Before the election, the 12-member Guardian Council, which vets all prospective candidates, perpetrated its usual cull of primarily reformist and centrist candidates, one of the major ways the conservatives have stacked the political deck to stay in power. But this time it simply didn’t work, as reformists and centrists surprisingly overcame the usual obstacles placed in their path.
At the time I write this, reformist and centrist independents have scored surprising and emphatic gains from their previous minority status. Among the voting for the Assembly of Experts, Rowhani and his critical ally – former President Rafsanjani – finished first and second, an emphatic vote of confidence for the relatively new administration. In liberal Tehran, moderates and reformists won all 30 parliamentary seats up for grabs.
Even more importantly, reformists look certain to exceed their hoped-for goal of securing at least 100 of the 290 seats in the Majlis. Within this newly-divided parliament – evenly split between reformers, independents, and conservatives – Rowhani will not only have room to politically maneuver, he will have the political wind at his back. It is easy to see why the Iranian president referred to the vote as the beginning of a ‘new chapter’ for Iran.
But perhaps westerners ought not to pop the champagne corks just yet. For all that the parliamentary election is an unambiguously hopeful development for the west, it is a limited one. President Rouhani well knows that Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, arch anti-western conservative that he is, still holds the lion’s share of power in Iran at present. As such, Khamenei will ensure there is no fundamental realignment toward the West.
The positive parliamentary vote, far from being decisive, keeps reformers in the long-term game to fashion Iran after Khamenei leaves the stageDr. John C. Hulsman
Beyond this, Iran and the U.S. remain fundamentally divided over the future of the murderous Assad regime in Syria, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the legitimacy of the state of Israel. None of this huge divisions are likely to go away in the near term, even if Khamenei himself did not exist (which he surely does). So while for the West the parliamentary results are genuine good news, they will change strategically little in the near term.
What the result does do is open the door to the strategic possibility – one dear to the heart of the Obama White House – that there remains a chance Iran can evolve from its traditional intransigent anti-western stance, and can over the next decade and with Rowhani’s guidance, drift toward a more pragmatic, neutralist, posture.
As such, the positive parliamentary vote, far from being decisive, keeps reformers in the long-term game to fashion Iran after Khamenei leaves the stage. With Rafsanjani and Rowhani members of the Assembly of Experts, the goal must be for moderates to succeed in picking the next supreme leader. That is the election result that will serve as the canary in the coal mine, letting the rest of us know the general trajectory Iran will be heading in. It is this upcoming election, and not the just concluded vote, that everyone is gambling on.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.