After Iran's Elections, the Supreme Leader's Next Steps
Many in the Western media are hoping the apparent success of reformist and moderate candidates in Iran’s February 26 election for parliament and the Assembly of Experts is a sign that the nuclear deal has sparked a long term moderating trend in the Iranian regime. Maybe. What is more important is how Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei sees the election.
First, the election itself. Once the Guardian Council eliminated the vast majority of actual reformist candidates, President Rouhani and his political ally former president Ali Rafsanjani adjusted course in their campaigns. Both released lists endorsing the remaining reformist and moderate candidates, but also a number of the regime’s more pragmatic conservatives and hardliners, some of whom did not realize they had been “converted” to the other side. Rafsanjani and Rouhani calculated that if they could not seat a parliament of their allies, at least they could mobilize their supporters to draw votes away from their most virulent critics.
The results were a vindication of Rouhani’s and Rafsanjani’s strategy. In parliament, the moderate-reformist bloc won 83 seats, hardliners won 78, independents won 60 and 64 seats will be filled in runoff elections scheduled for early April. Conservatives and hardliners will retain a majority in the Assembly, which may choose the next supreme leader after Khamenei, but reformists and moderates will have a larger voice.
Neither body will become paragons of liberalization and reform any time soon, but Rafsanjani and Rouhani scored important symbolic victories. Of the three most powerful hardliners on the Assembly, Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati, Mohammed Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and Mohammad Yazdi (who is also the body’s chair), only Jannati retained his seat. The hardliners’ anticipated nominee for parliament speaker and several other prominent hardliners lost their seats as well.
The Supreme Leader has made no direct comment about the results, but appears pleased with the election itself. Khamenei praised the relatively high turnout as a validation of the Islamic Republic’s system. More importantly, the vote went smoothly, with no significant protests or accusations of fraud. This was a clean election by Iranian standards, such as they are.
Khamenei is intensely worried about his legacy, though. Keeping the Islamic revolution Iran started in 1979 going after his passing is foremost among his worries. He recognizes that by backing Rouhani and Rafsanjani, the Iranian people have expressed desire for greater prosperity and openness to the world. But these are changes Khamenei will want to control as much as possible. What could be his next moves?
Trim Rouhani’s reform agenda. Despite the challenge of low oil prices, the senior leadership agrees that the Iranian economy needs significant reform. Much to the chagrin of Rouhani’s hardline critics, the president has delayed action on this year’s budget and the next 5-year development plan until the new parliament sits in May, and the Guardian Council has still not approved the new Iranian Petroleum Contract. These decisions shape which elites benefit most from new oil revenue and international investments as well as how much stake foreigners can own in Iranian firms—all questions likely to put Rouhani at odds with Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.