For Iran’s reformists, it’s been a long couple of months.
Despite a widely-expected victory in February’s first-round parliamentary election, the final runoff has been repeatedly delayed.
Contrary to popular belief, Iran does have real political debates. Noisy elections have been routine since the 1979 Islamic revolution. But the system is tightly controlled by the Guardian Council, an unelected body of 12 members - each one chosen by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
It’s the Guardian Council that has stalled the election by dragging its feet on validation of the first result, a mandatory requirement before the second round. After multiple postponements, the Electoral Commission at last announced a runoff date of April 29.
While it’s now down to the Interior Ministry to organise polling, the Guardian Council retains a crucial oversight role, vetting all candidates ahead of the campaign - eliminating anyone that is too overtly critical of the system.
Such careful vetting doesn’t stop some candidates unexpectedly turning critic.
An example is a young female reformist candidate - Mino Khaleghi in Esfahan, south of Tehran. Khaleghi placed third on a five-seat list. Yet last month, the Guardian Council annulled her election without specifying a reason. It’s the first time the Council has taken such radical steps post-election.
Appeals by the Interior Ministry have failed to overturn the Council’s ruling. It went on to strike out the Ministry’s candidate to replace her - another reformist-leaning figure.
Countering the reformists, members of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inner circle have been selected in rural constituencies and even some medium-size towns close to Tehran.
North of the capital, in the Alborz provinces, the victor was former Central Bank Governor Mahmoud Bahmani. He is one of four ministers that stands accused of signing letters that allowed for international sales of oil, in direct violation of Western-led sanctions. Last month Iranian businessman Babak Zanjani was condemned to capital punishment on corruption charges related to those deals. No former official has appeared in court.
In all, 12 former members of Ahmadinejad’s government, or governors appointed by him, have been elected. While it’s a sign that his network is still very much alive, it’s a small number relative to the 290-seat Parliament.
List of Hope
For all the Guardian Council’s pressure, the incoming Parliament is likely to be more willing to cooperate with reformist President Hassan Rouhani. Some of his most violent critics face probable defeat - hardliners like Alireza Zakani and Mehdi Kouchackzadeh.
By contrast, the liberal-leaning ex-president before Rouhani - Mohammad Khatami - has received strong support. His endorsement of the moderate ‘List of Hope’ coalition played a key role in the group’s first-round success in Tehran, where it won all 30 seats.
Once in Parliament, candidates from the coalition might struggle to retain a unified front. Members clash on fundamental issues, including the scale of economic and social reforms.
Bigger Challenges Than Parliament
Still, Rouhani’s biggest forthcoming challenge won’t be in Parliament. It will be preventing unelected institutions from thwarting his agenda. The most significant of these, of course, is the Guardian Council. In addition to its self-appointed role as an elections monitor, the Council also serves a role to ‘safeguard’ the constitution. As such, it commands powers to block legislation that is passed by Parliament.
Poster of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (L) and founder of Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini
The slogan chosen by the Supreme Leader for Iran’s year of 1395 signals the opposition Rouhani faces. This is the year of “Resistance Economy: Action and Implementation”, where the stated objective is to achieve autonomy through reliance on domestic production - which directly contradicts Rouhani’s plans to attract foreign investment.
Although he has emphasised the concept for several years, Khamenei has become more adamant about its scrupulous implementation. At a meeting with members of the government, parliament, judiciary and other institutions on April 7, the Supreme Leader demanded a headquarters for his resistance economy.
The government will attempt to bridge the ideological gap, with its vision of turning Iran into a regional production hub - exporting to Central and East Asia. This strategy requires joint ventures and transfers of technology between international companies and local businesses.
Yet the split between reformists and hardliners isn’t all about ideology. It comes down to a power struggle. Who reaps the benefits of sanctions relief and increased foreign interest in Iran?
The Revolutionary Guards, religious foundations and even pension funds linked to government ministries have gained considerable economic weight in the past decade of isolation, and none of them are ready to see their market share decline.
In this sense, the resistance economy is Khamenei’s way of counter-balancing a Parliament that is displaying increasing support for the progressive Rouhani government.
Natela Outtier is an Iran Analyst with West Sands Advisory Limited. A fluent Farsi speaker, Natela is a frequent visitor to Iran. Her primary responsibility at West Sands is to help clients understand the complexities of Iran’s elite networks, informal processes of decision-making, and the impact these have on the Iranian market. Her last visit was over Iranian New Years at the end of March 2016.
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