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4 reasons Iran's election is a bigger deal than you think

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Paris.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Paris.
Chesnot/Getty Images

Tens of millions of Iranians voted on Friday, for parliament and for the body that will likely pick the next supreme leader, in an election with still-uncertain but potentially major consequences for the country, its future, and its relationship with the outside world. So-called moderates swept the vote, seemingly defeating the hard-liners who've long dominated Iran's government.

It's worth a couple of important caveats. No two Iran analysts agree on who counts as a liberal-leaning "reformist" versus a "moderate" versus a "hard-liner." Iran does not have formal political parties, so we have to use fuzzy terms and imprecise measurements of which ideological factions are rising or falling. And, crucially, Iran's elected officials have real power, but they're limited by unelected authorities like the supreme leader.

We won't know how big a deal this is until the candidates get into office and we see how they actually govern and the extent to which they're willing or even able to much change things. But it is at least possible that this could be a very big deal.

Here's why.

1) The trend points toward a rise of moderates in Iran

Observers largely agree that the election for Iran's parliament (the Majlis) was a sweeping victory for Iran's political moderates and a defeat for hard-liners.

CBS called the results an "embarrassing defeat" for hard-liners and suggested that "the reformist camp is on track for its best showing in more than a decade."

The Associated Press summarized the results like this:

Reformists, who favor expanded social freedoms and engagement with the West, won at least 85 seats, according to final results released by the Interior Ministry and broadcast on state TV. Moderate conservatives — who split with the hard-line camp and support the nuclear deal — won 73, giving the two blocs together a majority over hard-liners in the 290-seat assembly.

By the AP's count, hard-liners will drop from 112 seats to only 68 — a stunning defeat.

Because there are no formal party lines, different outlets have different counts, but all show the same trends. The AFP, for example, has "conservatives" (also known as hard-liners) losing their two-thirds majority over the Majlis and now having only about a third of seats.

And it wasn't just this election. This follows the 2013 presidential election, in which moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani became the surprise victor, defeating hard-liner candidates who were considered regime favorites.

"The election results were surely a big victory for moderate forces and a terrifying failure for hardliners," Saeed Laylaz, an Iranian journalist associated with the country's reformist movement, told the Financial Times.

This represents, as Swarthmore's Shervin Malekzadeh writes, "the further consolidation of the centrist moment in Iranian politics," in which the election "marginalized radicals and consolidated a new political center." He forecasts, if trends continue, "the formation of a more tolerant and pluralist politics in Iran."

It's worth being modest about the stakes here, and not just because Iran's elected officials are still subservient to the unelected supreme leader. These are not people who want to tear down the system from within and replace it with a secular, pro-Western, free market democracy. Rather, what they want is to soften Iran's hostility toward the West, open up the country's economy, and improve individual freedoms — but all within the current system.

Realistically, the best-case scenario is not that Iran becomes a Western-style liberal democracy, but rather that it follows the China model — which is indeed what some Iranian moderates explicitly advocate — of gradual economic and diplomatic opening, along with loosening some social freedoms.

And it's entirely possible that Iran's moderates will not even achieve a China-style opening. But the results of this week's election suggest they will have much more political power to at least steer the country in that direction — a positive development.

2) Iranians approve of the nuclear deal and opening with the West — and push for more

Iranian journalists follow election results at the Interior Ministry (STRINGER/AFP/Getty)

Iranian journalists follow election results at the Interior Ministry. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty)

Iran analyst Farideh Farhi called the election "a referendum on the direction of the country under President Rouhani" as well as a test of whether Rouhani's support can "register its weight in a meaningful way" to create political pressure for more such policies.

That referendum seems to come down to Rouhani's most controversial policies: his nuclear deal and his economic opening. Believe it or not, the nuclear deal was arguably even more controversial in Iran than it was in the US, with hard-liners insisting the US could never be trusted and that Rouhani was leading the country into disaster.

Rouhani's gamble was that he could deliver economic benefits for Iranians, in the form of both reduced sanctions and increased trade deals, and thus sway even Iranians skeptical of the West.

This was a big gamble. US officials always acknowledged that — if Rouhani overpromised the economic benefits of the Iran deal, then you could see outraged Iranians punish him in this year's parliamentary elections. This could in turn empower hard-liners to pressure Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to kill the deal outright.

That didn't happen. In fact, the opposite happened: Iranians gave Rouhani a big stamp of approval for his policies. That will quiet hard-liner criticism — in part because there will just be fewer hard-liners in office to criticize him — and put pressure on the Iranian political leader to deliver more such policies.

The results, as the New York Times's Thomas Erdbrink writes, "gave some weight to President Obama’s carefully couched hopes that the deal might introduce changes that could gradually bring Iran out of its confrontational posture with the West and, most pointedly, the United States."

Again, to be cautious about the stakes here, this does not mean that Iran is about to magically transform its foreign policy to be much friendlier to the West and its allies. Iran's powerful security establishment, which operates independently of the democratically elected officials, still prefers a policy of hostility.

The point is that Iran's elected institutions, after a decade under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's official anti-Western hostility, are increasingly organized around seeking political and economic openings. The election both cemented this trend and demonstrated that Iranians will reward it.

3) It puts pressure on the supreme leader

khamenei sentences

Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gives a speech in Tehran on July 8, 2014. (Leader.ir - Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

"This is a referendum on the current supreme leader as well," Texas A&M Iran scholar Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar told the Council on Foreign Relations last week.

"The supreme leader is furious that in the past five years, especially during the Ahmadinejad presidency, many of his conservative allies moved away from him," Tabaar went on. "[Supreme Leader] Khamenei is not happy that many of these moderate conservatives have allied with Rouhani, if not publicly at least quietly."

Tabaar predicted that as a result, heavy moderate victories in the election would "undermine the supreme leader and his influence among the elites."

It's important to understand that Khamenei is powerful — by far the most powerful leader in Iran — but he is not all-powerful, and has repeatedly shown that he is susceptible to internal political pressure.

For example, many analysts worried in 2013 that Khamenei would be unwilling to overrule the hard-liners, both in the government and among the citizenry, who opposed (and still oppose) the nuclear deal.

"We've never seen Khamenei actually overrule the hard-liners on an issue of this kind of importance," the Brookings Institution's Kenneth Pollack told me back in 2013, warning that Khamenei lacks that confidence as a leader.

Ultimately, Khamenei did allow the nuclear deal to go through. So either he developed unprecedented political strength and overruled the hard-liners or, maybe more likely, he bent to the pressure from Iran's increasingly powerful and popular moderates who wanted the nuclear deal. That pressure will likely now increase with this week's election and the moderates' continued rise.

The supreme leader is still the supreme leader; he is still far more powerful than Rouhani or any other Iranian official. And he's still a hard-liner at heart.

No election is going to change that. But the point is that moderates will be in a stronger position to nudge Khamenei toward more moderate policies — the nuclear deal was a pretty tectonic shift in Iranian foreign policy — and hard-liners will be in a weaker position to resist.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a prominent moderate-leaning political figure who was once close with Khamenei, tweeted of the results, "No one is able to resist against the will of the majority of the people and whoever the people don't want has to step aside."

4) The election's hidden and potentially historic significance: on picking the next supreme leader

Iranians didn't just vote for parliament. They also voted for a body called the Assembly of Experts — which, though few outside Iran have heard of it, could be in a position to radically alter Iran's politics.

The Assembly of Experts, an elected body of about 90 senior clerical and political figures, has one really important responsibility. When the supreme leader dies or otherwise leaves office, they pick a new one. Here's how it works and why it's so important:

The assembly's members serve eight-year terms; Khamenei is currently 76 years old and recently had prostate surgery, and even he has hinted that he knows he's likely to die during that time.

So the Assembly of Experts elected this week may very well end up picking the next supreme leader, who could rule Iran for a generation. And, as with the parliamentary election, the assembly election was swept by moderates.

"[Hard-liners] were also roundly defeated in the experts assembly—made up of senior clerics—with all but one prominent hardliner trounced in the fight for Tehran’s 16 seats," the Financial Times's Najmeh Bozorgmehr writes.

Moderates appear to have won a majority on the assembly. More than that, they kicked out many hard-liners — including Mohammad Yazdi, who was the assembly's leader and is considered a close Khamenei ally. The new moderate majority will be in a good position to pick his replacement, meaning they could pick a new supreme leader who is himself more moderate than Khamenei — which would have implications far more sweeping than any presidential or parliamentary vote.

Rouhani holds one of the seats on the Assembly of Experts. Tabaar, in his discussion with CFR, pointed out of Rouhani that "he himself is a potential candidate to be the next supreme leader." It sounds crazy — and I'm not sure I believe that Rouhani could win enough institutional support, given how controversial his policies are — but Khamenei became supreme leader after a stint in the presidency.

Ultimately we can't say for sure that Khamenei will die in the next eight years. And we really can't be sure that the process of replacing him would go by the book. On paper, the assembly is supposed to pick the next supreme leader. But rule of law in Iran is weak enough, and extraconstitutional power centers like the Republican Guards are strong enough, that it could go very differently.

Still, even acknowledging that uncertainty, this is a promising sign for the long-term future of Iran — with implications that could last a generation.

Maybe it's time to acknowledge that Iran's politics matter

It is considered something of a taboo, here in the United States and particularly in Washington, to acknowledge that Iran has politics, that Iran has elections, and that those things have consequences.

It's easy to understand why. The country's paramount leader is an unelected, lifelong figure literally called the "supreme leader," after all. That doesn't sound like a place where politics and elections would make much of a difference.

Iranian politics are indeed constrained by authoritarianism. Opposition candidates are jailed or put under house arrest. Iranians who protested apparently fraudulent election results in 2009 faced violent, deadly crackdowns. Yet at the same time, Iran does have popularly elected bodies with real power, institutions that push against one another, and political factions that are constantly at one another's throats, jockeying for power and influence to see through their dramatically clashing visions for the country.

Iran is not a democracy, in other words, but rather an autocracy with democratic elements — a legacy of its 1979 revolution, in which revolutionary leaders with drastically different visions and little governing experience slapped together a convoluted mess of a political system that was somehow meant to be both a democracy and a theocracy. If those two systems sound incompatible, it's because they are, and the tension between them has defined Iran and its politics ever since.

Iran is what political scientists call a hybrid regime, which is to say its government is a hybrid of dictatorship and democracy.

Harvard's Steven Levitsky, a scholar of hybrid regimes, defines Iran as one of many countries, alongside others like Pakistan, Guatemala, and 1990s Nepal, "in which elections are competitive but the power of elected governments are constrained by non-elected … authorities."

In Iran, this means elections that are far from as free as we'd like but are still heavily contested by a (limited) number of candidates representing a (constrained) spectrum of political views. It means democratically elected officials do have power, but their institutions are ultimately secondary to unelected institutions.

But Iran is an adversary, so it can be distasteful for Americans to acknowledge that its hybrid system lies in the vast gray area between US-style democracy and Saudi-style autocracy. Telling ourselves that Iran is not just an adversary but also an unqualified totalitarian state makes thinking about the country, and setting policy toward it, easier and less morally complicated.

If its government is little more than a criminal cartel holding 80 million citizens as unwilling hostages, then we do not have to worry ourselves with difficult trade-offs between interests and values, or about whether it is proper to seek the collapse of a government that has meaningful public support. A policy of maximal hostility toward Iran becomes not just geopolitically advantageous but morally necessary. We can both desire Iran's destruction and tell ourselves that we are fighting on behalf of the Iranian people.

This was an understandable conclusion in 2009, when Iranians protested the fraud-ridden presidential election and were met with appalling state violence. Iranian politics and elections did not look very consequential then. It was an understandable conclusion in 2011, when the parliamentary elections were little more than a proxy battle between hard-liners allied with President Ahmadinejad versus hard-liners allied with Khamenei.

But the 2013 and 2016 elections, the former of which paved the way for the nuclear deal and Iran's ongoing opening with the West, show that Iran does have meaningful and consequential internal politics, and that those politics can be significantly shaped by elections.

This does not make Iran anything like a Western-style democracy. It still falls far short of any reasonable, bare-minimum standards for political freedom. Iran is still Iran. But it shows that within that authoritarian theocracy, there are democratic elements, including a non-zero role for the expression of popular will via elections. Maybe it's time we acknowledge that.