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How the nuclear deal boosted Iran's moderates — and showed Iranian elections can matter

Iranians line up to vote in the 2016 elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts.
Iranians line up to vote in the 2016 elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts.
Scott Peterson/Getty

The Obama administration was careful, in advocating for the nuclear deal with Iran, not to argue that the deal would necessarily bolster the country's moderates, or that such a boost would be required for the deal to work. But they clearly hoped.

"It is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran," President Obama told NPR in April. "But the key point I want to make is, the deal is not dependent on anticipating those changes. If they don't change at all, we're still better off having the deal."

It now looks like those hopes may have paid off — that the nuclear deal, according to Iran analysts, may have helped deepen the rise of moderate political forces in Iran, potentially tilting the country's politics in a more conciliatory direction.

The evidence is this past week's Iranian elections, which handed a surprising victory to moderates and in which the nuclear deal appeared to play a significant role.

This doesn't mean the nuclear deal is primarily responsible for the rise of Iranian moderates, or that this trend will necessarily continue. Just as in any country, Iran's own leaders, voters, and internal forces play roles far more decisive than does the United States. Factors indigenous to Iran are responsible for this happening, and factors indigenous to Iran could reverse it. And Iran is still Iran: a country dominated by unelected hard-liners.

Nonetheless, the nuclear deal is playing a role in the larger story of Iranian politics, in ways that are both consequential and pretty revealing.

The nuclear deal was a wedge issue that favored moderates

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani talks about the nuclear deal at a press conference in Tehran in April 2015. President Trump has just undercut Rouhani. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani talks about the nuclear deal at a press conference in Tehran on April 3, 2015. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

Two things appear to have happened here.

The first is a phenomenon familiar to any country with elections. Iran's long-divided political factions split over the nuclear deal, and over Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's larger strategy of easing tensions with the West.

It became something of a wedge issue in the election, animating much of the political debate. The factions that backed Rouhani did very well, and those that opposed him did poorly.

Here's how the Associated Press summed it up. Looking at election results, they found that the nuclear deal had given reformists and moderates a winning platform to run on:

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.

When nuclear negotiations got started, there was concern that Iranians would reject any deal as a humiliation, given that it would likely require surrendering most of the nuclear program and submitting to embarrassing inspections.

Rouhani got around this problem by promising that the deal would bring economic relief and an opening with the outside world, which would itself bring Iranians dignity and pride.

It worked. The election became a mechanism for demonstrating that Rouhani's strategy is popular, for giving Rouhani's allies more power to continue that strategy, and for weakening the hard-liners who opposed the nuclear deal.

This has been reflected in Western coverage of the elections. The New York Times's Tehran-based Thomas Erdbrink, for example, wrote of the elections' results, "The most reactionary voices in Iranian politics are losing ground to moderates buoyed by the sweeping nuclear deal with big powers, including the United States."

The nuclear deal showed that elections can have consequences in Iran — that moderates can have a voice

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

But the second element here is something much more particular to Iran and to its political system — a part authoritarian, part democratic government that political scientists call a "hybrid regime."

It's worth remembering that Iran's hard-liners, who always opposed the nuclear deal and any conciliation with the West, dominated Iranian politics from the late 1990s right up until 2013, when the moderate Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election. When Rouhani took office, hard-liners — who still dominated both the parliament and Iran's many unelected institutions — pledged to fight the nuclear deal.

From 2013 to 2015, Iranian politics divided over the nuclear deal. If hard-liners succeeded in killing the deal, this would have also signaled that Rouhani didn't have the power to push it through. It would have rebuked the power of the president, and by extension the power of the Iranian public to express their will through elections.

But the nuclear deal did go through, Rouhani delivered on his promise of reducing sanctions, and this week Iranian voters recognized and rewarded his success by voting for his allies.

The nuclear deal showed Iranians — both regular citizens and regime officials — that Iran's 2013 elections had succeeded in not just symbolically electing a moderate but also helping to steer the course of Iran's politics and policies in a substantially different direction.

More than that, the nuclear deal showed that Iranian elections in general can have consequences, that voting in Iran can have a real impact on the country's direction and policies. This matters, because the more political influence elections demonstrate, the more incentive regular Iranians have to participate, and the harder it becomes for the regime to defy or ignore public will.

"The deal validated Rouhani's approach, reenergized his base, and affirmed the utility of elections as means of affecting the state's policies," Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group's senior Iran analyst, told me. "Without the deal, his constituents would have lost hope."

To be clear, Iran is still far from anything we might call a liberal democracy. The power of elections remains at best limited. Unelected power centers, such as the security services and the judiciary, not to mention the supreme leader himself, remain dominated by hard-liners and very powerful.

But the nuclear deal showed that these hard-liners don't have all the power in Iran. Popularly elected moderates can have power, too. Pushing through the nuclear deal — and getting sanctions relief from the West — was a high-stakes fight for Iran's moderates, and the fact that they won is a big deal.

When I asked Vaez if he agreed with arguments that the nuclear deal had boosted moderates, he put it to me like this:

"One way to answer your question is to ask the opposite question: Was this result achievable without the nuke deal? I think the answer to that question is a resounding no."

In other words, it's probably not the case that the nuclear deal magically handed power to the moderates. Rather, the nuclear deal became an opportunity for moderates to show they had an agenda that could work, and to show they could overcome the hard-liners with enough public support.

No, this doesn't mean moderates are in charge. But it means they're more influential.

A good rule of thumb when it comes to hybrid regimes in general and Iran's regime in particular: Don't get your hopes up about elections.

Hard-liners might be down in Iran's elected bodies — they lost the presidency and lost their majority in parliament — but they still hold the powerful unelected bodies I mentioned earlier. They're under growing political pressure to accommodate moderates, but they're still very powerful themselves.

"Here is the rub," Vaez told me. "The moderates have more wind in their sails, but the overall balance of power remains unaltered. The moderates' victory is above all symbolic. Rouhani still needs other power centers and the conservatives to advance his agenda."

The nuclear deal wasn't a story of moderates outright defeating hard-liners, but rather outmaneuvering them, including with the tacit tolerance — but not outright support — of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei's place in the Iranian political system is central to this story. Khamenei is Iran's most powerful leader, but he's not all-powerful. And he's susceptible to political pressure from both hard-liners and from moderates.

"Khamenei does not rule over an absolutist system; although Iran's highest authority, he must nevertheless bend to the wind in order to preserve the regime," RAND's Alireza Nader points out.

Throughout this process, Khamenei's actions have been defined by his "habitual risk aversion and need to balance factional interests," as Vaez put it in an insightful Crisis Group report this December.

Tellingly, Rouhani was able to get around hard-liner opposition in part by ceding to them on other matters, namely "political and socio-cultural reforms," Vaez writes. He didn't overcome hard-liners' power, but rather recognized it as a reality. This made it easier for Khamenei — who is only so willing to challenge hard-liners in his regime — to ultimately let the nuclear negotiations stand, even if he also occasionally undermined them.

This is to put the election and the rise of the moderates in context. We are not entering a magical new era where democracy reigns in Iran and where moderates set the country's course. Iran's system still privileges authoritarian elements alongside and often above democratic elements; hard-liners still wield tremendous power. Rather, the change is that within this heavily authoritarian and hard-liner-dominated system, moderate politics and elections are becoming more important.

That's far from a moderate revolution in Iranian politics. But it's potentially pretty significant, and it's due, in no small part, to an opening that the nuclear deal helped create.