March 11, 2016

Policy Memo – Iran Election: A Defeat for Hardliners

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On February 26, the Iranian people voted in elections to choose Iran’s next parliament (Majles) and the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with appointing the Supreme Leader. With 34 million Iranians participating—approximately 62 percent of eligible voters—hardliners in both bodies were dealt a significant defeat. Reformists, moderates, and some conservatives formed a coalition supporting the Rouhani government, dubbed the “Second Step” on a path to moderation (with the first step being the 2013 election of Rouhani). They managed to defeat many of the opponents of the nuclear deal and provide a likely plurality to back Rouhani’s agenda in parliament.

  • The moderate coalition is expected to win over one-third of seats in parliament, with independents and hardliners each controlling less than one-third—giving moderates a plurality to back the Rouhani government’s policies.
  • In the Assembly of Experts, the coalition is expected to win 46-50 of 88 positions according to independent estimates—a potential majority.
  • Women have won more seats than any previous parliament: 14 women have been elected so far and it is estimated that as many as 22 will be elected following runoffs—more than double the previous parliament.

A Victory for Rouhani and a “Second Step” Towards Moderation

These elections were a referendum on the direction of Rouhani’s government, most notably the nuclear deal and opening up the economy. The Iranian electorate proved in the second straight election that reformists and moderates have a broad base that is capable of outmaneuvering institutionalized, undemocratic obstacles:

  • The Guardian Council disqualified thousands of reformist candidates in 2016. In response, the Reformist and Government Supporters list was formed to enable reformists, along with moderates and certain conservatives who back parts of Rouhani’s agenda, to work together to defeat hardliners.
  • The effort is a continuation of a strategy in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 elections and the largely uncontested 2012 parliamentary elections to recalibrate and build a more broad-based, gradual path to reform. In 2013 this strategy elected the lone moderate Presidential candidate, Rouhani, and in 2016 defeated his government’s opponents.
  • The moderate coalition was supported by two former presidents: Mohammad Khatami, who remains the country’s most notable reformist despite being banned from Iranian media; and Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate conservative and regime insider who broke with the Supreme Leader over the 2009 Green Movement. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the 2009 candidate who sparked the Green Movement, also supported the coalition and voted while under continued house arrest.

What Happens Next?

With a plurality in parliament, Rouhani’s government will have more maneuverability to pursue its agenda. For instance, it is up to parliament to approve infrastructure contracts set by the government. Past hardline-led parliaments have ensured that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated companies won those contracts. Now, the Rouhani government, which has challenged the IRGC’s role in the economy, can steer contracts elsewhere.

  • “Resistance” versus “engagement”: The Supreme Leader Khamenei warned against voting for candidates who want to open up Iran’s economy to Western economic “infiltration.” Hardliners used this narrative to portray the moderate coalition as influenced by foreign enemies seeking to weaken the country. Moderates, on the other hand, ran on a platform of opening up Iran’s economy. That message won, but it will be up to Rouhani to deliver.
  • Notable hardline leaders were defeated from the Assembly of Experts which, given its 8-year term, may be charged with deciding on the successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Among those defeated were Mohammad Yazdi, the current chair of the Assembly of Experts, and, Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, regarded as the spiritual leader of the hardliners.
  • Many of the most vocal opponents of the nuclear agreement were defeated in parliament, including he leader of the hardliners who hoped to become the next Speaker, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, and Ruhollah Hosseinian, who threatened to bury Iran’s nuclear negotiators in concrete.

Some will now claim that the 2016 elections do not matter and that we should write off the efforts of the Iranian people to create change through the ballot box. Many of the same critics claimed that Rouhani’s election in 2013 would not matter and would not have any impact on the nuclear issue. But while Iranian elections are not free or fair, they almost always have consequences and this year’s elections demonstrate a promising new trend in support of a path of engagement and moderation for Iran.

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