Iran held another round of elections last weekend. This will come as a shock to many in America, where the perception of Iran is that of a dungeon ruled exclusively according to the whims of incantation-murmuring imams. But democracy is deeper integrated into Iranian culture than many believe, far more so than in, say, our great and glorious ally Saudi Arabia.
In the first set of elections, held in February, allies of the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani swept the Assembly of Experts, an advisory body that will select the next Supreme Leader. They also made serious inroads against hardliners in the Majles, Iran’s parliament. Most stunningly, reformers won every parliamentary seat in the powerful capital of Tehran. But 68 of the parliamentary contests failed to produce a majority for any candidate, and so runoff elections were scheduled for April 29.
Now the ballots have been tallied. The New York Times reports:
Supporters of President Hassan Rouhani of Iran have won more seats in parliamentary runoff elections, the Iranian state news media reported Saturday, but they failed to win enough of the 68 contested seats to secure a majority, limiting their ability to carry out significant political and social changes. …
After Friday’s runoff elections for races that were not decided in the first round of voting in February, the reformists and moderate supporters of Mr. Rouhani hold 122 seats in the 290-member Parliament, and the conservative hard-liners have 84, the state media reported.
Independents — who are likely to side with Iran’s conservative clerical leaders, particularly the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on crucial issues — have 82 seats, according to the results announced by the state media.
Of course, it’s disappointing that the parliament will be hung—a decisive reformer majority would have been a jarring blow to Islamism in Iran. There’s also a rack of caveats that must be observed here. Many pro-liberalization candidates were disqualified by the judicial Guardian Council prior to the elections because they were judged insufficiently Islamic. The power of the Majles is dwarfed by that of the presidency, Guardian Council, and the Supreme Leader himself. Iran doesn’t allow political parties, meaning reformers may drift towards the hardliners or vice versa, and alliances are often quickly severed.
The significance of these elections is that of a referendum: the engagement with the world favored by President Hassan Rouhani, including the nuclear deal with America, has been endorsed. It’s also that of a signal: to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that the tyranny and isolationism of his Islamist hardliners won’t suit Iran’s youthful population. This was a baby step in the right direction, but an important one. The elections will steel Rouhani and give him a mandate to pursue further changes, albeit gradually.
Khamenei’s response to all this has been tactical, allowing the nuclear deal and praising expressions of democracy in Iran, while cracking down in other areas. Recently, he’s railed against America for maintaining a presence in the Persian Gulf, launched ballistic missiles with provocative statements written in Hebrew, and beefed up the widely despised morality police to make sure women aren’t showing too much skin. It’s a reminder that, while Khamenei and Rouhani usually only criticize each other in the most passive-aggressive of terms, very real tension exists between the hardliners and the modernizers. Just because Rouhani won the elections doesn’t mean the pillars of the Islamic Revolution are about to collapse.
The challenge for the United States now is to avoid doing anything that will disadvantage Rouhani and his allies. This strings up a narrow tightrope with regard to the nuclear deal. Contra neoconservative histrionics, the agreement hasn’t lined the pockets of Iranian terrorists with $100 billion or $150 billion or $700 quadrillion or whatever it was supposed to be. The actual amount Iran has reaped is about $3 billion. This has left some Iranians griping that the deal was unfair, since they adhered to the terms of nuclear disarmament but have seen little corresponding boost to their ailing economy. They’re now demanding that further sanctions be lifted, including a ban on dollar-denominated trades. They also want America to reassure foreign banks spooked by its past crackdowns on commerce with Iran.
The United States must continue to enforce its non-nuclear sanctions. But it must allow enough latitude for Iran to receive genuine benefits, so as to not give ammunition to the hardliners who want to abandon diplomacy altogether. If it can pull off that balance, perhaps we’ll see more rapprochements to come—and more elections like the one on Friday.