Change, Hope, and Uncertainty amidst the Iranian Vote

Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:

Under Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, Iran has seen civil change and economic headway become a concrete possibility. That is why the ongoing national elections for the nation’s Parliament and Assembly of Experts have inspired broad optimism among observers within the country and abroad. While final results have not been tallied, initial reports suggest sweeping gains by reformist and pro-Rouhani moderate representatives in both bodies. Yet while the electoral results are a promising sign for reformists in Iran, Rouhani and his supporters in the national government will continue to face an uphill battle as they continue to pursue economic and political progress.

The elections themselves represent nothing less than a public verdict on Iran’s reformist movement. Rouhani based his own presidential platform upon promises of a culture-change within Iranian politics, particularly regarding its relations with the West. Most Iranians have maintained their support for Rouhani’s message, given the positive outcomes of the recent international nuclear negotiations and the alleviation of international sanctions. Unfortunately for reformists, most of the country has yet to experience the full potential benefits of Rouhani’s efforts, and conservative interests are reluctant to consent to further engagement with the West. For Rouhani, strong reformist/moderate success in the new Parliament and the Assembly of Experts would thus represent a strong vote of public confidence. The implications of the elections were further weighted by both the sheer number of candidates of all affiliations (reported to reach 6,200 nationwide), the short timeframe of the electoral season (only one week), and the fact that many potential reformist and moderate candidates were disqualified from running from the start.

For these reasons, the overwhelming success of reformist and moderate candidates on Sunday is such a crucial achievement for Rouhani’s reform-minded agenda. The Assembly of Experts, the national Parliament, and even many provincial races all experienced victories by a considerable number of reformist and pro-Rouhani moderate candidates. From a pragmatic standpoint, this could help Rouhani as he continues to push for increased dialogue with the West and wards off backlash from reactionary elites. More important could be the strength of popular support for Rouhani and the reformist agenda that the election results reflect. Many analysts have perceived the reformists’ and pro-Rouhani moderates gains as a boon for Rouhani’s ability to press forward with reforms.

Yet for all of its symbolic importance, the growing clout of reformists and moderates in Iran’s legislative bodies may not itself be enough to overhaul deeply embedded norms and procedures which favor the state’s conservative heritage. The national Parliament is limited in its actual ability to direct policy-making. The Guardian Council, the body tasked with assessing the religious permissibility of legislation, can block meaningful reform laws. The more important victories may be those made in the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint and monitor the country’s Supreme Leader. The significance here is made all the more important given the health of current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, age 76, and the likely need for a new Supreme Leader in the near-future. However, it is unlikely the new Assembly will enjoy a great deal of freedom in selecting and supervising a new Supreme Leader in the face of still-entrenched conservative elites.

Another inevitable hurdle is the slow pace of economic liberalization and development. The lifting of international sanctions under the Rouhani presidency have given his reformist agenda some early credence. Potential foreign investors are displaying a greater interest in projects in cities like Tehran. Additionally, inflation has dropped from 40 percent to 13 percent since Rouhani assumed office. Unfortunately, long-term growth remains a fragile prospect. Youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, infrastructural development has stagnated, and the persistent dual challenges of a low-valued currency and high prices for basic goods will continue to suppress ordinary citizens’ standards of living. This is not to say that Rouhani’s efforts have failed to promote structural change in Iran’s economy; the easing of nuclear sanctions and growth projects have laid the groundwork for long-term prosperity and economic dynamism. The benefits of this change will take time and patience to materialize.

Finally, Rouhani and the new reformist and moderate legislators may find changing Iran’s political culture to be the biggest hurdle. While the electoral results rightfully evoke optimism for popular commitment to political change, this trend is not set in stone. Analysts have pointed out that Iranians may desire a sense of stability and security even more than political and economic liberalization. Citizens’ desire for stability is coupled with the conservative elites entrenched in the Guardian Council and the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), organizations that oppose systemic changes that could disrupt their grip on power.

At the same time, Rouhani and the reformists must prove that they can develop change that will improve Iranians’ sense of ownership of their own political system. In the words of Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd: “Iranians want change… What they don’t want is to be told that their vote doesn’t count, or that it doesn’t matter.” If Rouhani and reformist lawmakers fail to show that they can translate their goals for the country from possibility to reality, their supporters might lose hope that they can influence meaningful change within their country’s politics and society. Without continued public support to back their efforts in the legislature, the reformist movement could ultimately stagnate.

For decades, Iranians have struggled to reconcile their political and social reality with the possibility of greater freedoms and opportunities. For reform-minded citizens and officials, the electoral victories have inspired optimism that progress can persist. It must be understood, though, that political and social change is by no means guaranteed. Long-term economic development, political reforms, and raising citizens’ expectations will remain arduous processes considering the power that reactionary figures still hold. The struggle to achieve them may only become greater as time goes by. It is unlikely that the outcomes of one election—no matter how strategically successful or symbolically meaningful—will change that.

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