More than 6,200 candidates began campaigning last week in a pair of elections scheduled for February 26 that could determine whether or not Iran moves toward greater engagement with the rest of the world, following Tehran’s historic accord with the United States and other world powers over its nuclear program.
A coalition of pragmatists, center-right moderates, and reformists, backed by the administration of President Hassan Rouhani, is challenging the hawks and hard-liners who currently dominate Iran’s parliament. And, in a parallel election, allies of Rouhani and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will try to make gains in the so-called Assembly of Experts, the 88-member clerical body that oversees Iran’s supreme leader—and that will choose his successor if the current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 76, dies in office.
“The next parliament could be much friendlier to Rouhani,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), told The Nation. “That won’t mean that Rouhani gets the upper hand, but at least he’ll have a chance of diminishing or weakening the hard-line faction.” The current parliament, or Majlis, is dominated by that faction because, during the 2012 election, moderates and reformists largely boycotted the vote. (They were angry and discouraged because that vote followed the controversial 2009 presidential election, in which hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected amid widespread charges of irregularities and vote stealing.)
In 2013, however, moderates and reformists shook off their lethargy to support Rouhani’s campaign, in which he promised to seek a deal over Iran’s nuclear program and take steps to liberalize domestic politics. Rouhani won handily, getting more than 50 percent of the vote against an array of ultraconservatives. He hopes that a strong showing this year will bolster his chances for re-election as president in 2017.
“This election will prove whether 2013 was an aberration or not,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told The Nation. “If Rouhani doesn’t get a cooperative parliament, he may very well be Iran’s first one-term president. What happens this week will be very significant for his future.”
Often portrayed as a dictatorship, Iran’s politics are in fact notoriously complicated. Though Khamenei controls or influences many levers of power—including the judiciary, the secretive Guardian Council, and the Revolutionary Guards—both the parliament and the executive branch, led by Rouhani, have significant clout. A parliament less influenced by the radical right and ultraconservative clerics would give Rouhani leverage as he attempts to capitalize on the nuclear deal and the lifting of economic sanctions to strengthen economic ties with partners in Asia, Western Europe, and even the United States. At the same time, Rouhani could finally take baby steps to release political prisoners, allow greater media freedom, and expand civil rights protections.