The foreign observers of the Iranian elections to the Majlis (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts (which elects and supervises the work of the Supreme Leader) needlessly tied themselves in knots by seeing them as a defining moment. Of course, in any political system that has features of representative rule, elections are a landmark event. But life moves on.
The three strains in political ideology in Iran’s politics – hardline conservative, moderately conservative (or more aptly, ‘moderate pragmatist’) and sweeping reformist – are nothing new. Imam Khomeini’s towering personality subsumed them, but since his death in 1989, their interplay accounted for the sheer liveliness of Iran’s factional politics.
Equally, the ability to influence majority opinion in the Majlis is but one ingredient in the alchemy of success of an incumbent president – and not necessarily the critical. The ‘reformist’ president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) ended ignominously with the presidency in hopeless stalemate despite commanding majority support in the Majlis.
Khatami’s reform blueprint could not take off as he got entangled in a struggle with powerful opponents in the unelected institutions of the regime that had no legal authority over him but could wear him out such as the radio and television, police, armed forces, judiciary, prison and Guardian Council (which oversees the Majlis). Khatami lost the power struggle.
Interestingly, the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani too faced no entrenched opposition from the outgoing Majlis. He got along well with the speaker Ali Larijani, who hails from a powerful family associated with the conservative establishment and also belongs to the same platform as Rouhani – moderate conservative. A few of Rouhani’s cabinet choices could have raised dust in the Majlis, but it let him have his way. His legislative proposals sailed through the Majlis.
The Majlis was well aware of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s backing for the negotiations on the nuclear deal. Khamenei openly praised Rouhani and Foreign Minister Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for doing a splendid job. Consequently, although some hardliners might have been skeptical, they also fell in line.
Suffice it to say, where Rouhani differs from Khamatami is that he practically spent his entire working life in the sanctum sanctorum of the Iranian power structure in one capacity or the other (including as a lawmaker for 20 years at a stretch) and knows how to work the system, to reconcile contradictions and to extract a synthesis out of it that serves his purpose.
Nonetheless, a ‘moderate’ Majlis is also invested with much significance. It signifies ‘change’ insofar as 80% of the incoming Majlis’ composition may have been overhauled. Rouhani summed up memorably by evoking the metaphor of a serpent – that there has been a “shedding skin at the parliament”.
Such phenomenal change would create a new dynamics in the political arena. Second, the high turnout in the election – preceded by a campaign that witnessed animated discussions over the internet and social network and despite total absence of state television or any coercive attempt to influence voters – has re-established a new ‘connectivity’ between the Majlis and society that can only enhance the credibility of its legislative work, which in turn legitimizes Rouhani’s reform program.
Put differently, the electoral verdict underscored that Iran (with 80% of the population below the age of 30) is a highly aspirational society, which has shed its apathy and is assertively proclaiming its demand for ‘change’. The people have reposed faith in their voting power and the Majlis cannot but reflect the society’s craving for change, especially in the economic sphere.
It’s the economy, Stupid! There has been an old struggle going on in Iran in the post-Khomeini era between those, on the one hand, who advocated engaging the West, inviting foreign investment and setting free the market and private entrepreneurial skill, and those, on the other hand, who adocated economic autarchy, self-reliance and state control of the economy.
While president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsansjani (1989-1997) initiated the restoration of diplomatic relations with leading western countries such as the UK and France, he promoted the private sector and hoped to revive the economy (after the devastating 8-year war with Iraq). But his best-laid plans ran into headwinds of hostility from the US.
Where Rouhani’s chance lies in dismantling Iran’s stagnant economic system of ‘state capitalism’ is ultimately that Iran is no longer shackled by crippling sanctions. With a Majlis inclined to promote ‘change’, a nation that craves for ‘change’, and a vastly favorable external environment, the ‘moderate conservative’ president has a fair chance of succeeding.
The things to be watched will be his inclination to introduce social reforms, which at some point could edge dangerously close to political reforms. But it will be naive to expect a fundamental transformation in this direction any time soon. Rouhani is not in the mould of Mikhail Gorbachev. However, the surge of the market and the new production forces it unleashes cannot but impact the socio-political norms as time passes.
The same holds good for foreign policies. The Iranian society is characterized by a high sense of nationalism. Remember, there was a robust national consensus cutting across social strata supporting Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranian nation has a high sense of destiny as a great power in its region and on the world stage.
Therefore, arguably, if one is willing to see that it is not so much the Shi’ite-centric bloc politics as burning Persian nationalism that would color Iran’s regional policies in the post-nuclear deal era, many things would begin to fall in place and an accommodation with Iran becomes entirely within the reach of the West, provided of course a relationship of interdependency develops, based on trust and mutual benefit.
But then, that calls for smart thinking. Even if Europe understands this, which is the case – and the Obama administration indeed understands this – there is no certainty that the next president in the White House would be equally insightful and profound in his (or her) understanding of Iran as a proud civilization.
On the other hand, the good part is that it may have already slipped out of American hands to put the genie back in the bottle, since a roll-back of Iran’s integration with the international community is practically impossible.
If the US is far-sighted, it should appreciate that there could be remarkable continuity in the Iranian policies for some time to come with Rouhani as president today and, possibly, in a higher capacity tomorrow.
Khamenei was the choice of Khomeini and the Assemly of Experts formalised the decision. (Khamenei was president at that time.) Inevitably, it is in the back-room deals of the grey cardinals of the Iranian regime that the next supreme leader will be decided and expectations of deviation from the ideological foundations of the regime are best avoided. The ‘reformist’ victory in the recent elections to the Assembly of Experts, therefore, needs to be put in proper perspective.
The time may have come for an idea that had first surfaced in 1989 – that a 3-member council should succeed Imam Khomeini. Ironically, Rafsanjani and Khamenei favored that idea then, but Imam Khomeini decided otherwise.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.