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4 reasons Iran's new parliament is a really big deal

The speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, gives a speech during a press conference at the parliament building in Tehran, Iran, on March 16, 2015.
The speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, gives a speech during a press conference at the parliament building in Tehran, Iran, on March 16, 2015.
Fatemeh Bahrami /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On May 28, Iran’s newly elected parliament will be sworn in. It will be the 10th — and potentially the most consequential — elected assembly since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

Of course, ultimate power rests in the hands of the unelected supreme leader and the powerful 12-member Guardian Council (also unelected).

But the 290-member parliament, officially called the Islamic Consultative Assembly, does have some power. It has control of the budget, can confirm or impeach ministers, and has the power to issue formal questions that the government has to answer. Perhaps most important, though, it serves as a public forum for robust and often contentious policy debates.

The Guardian Council vets parliamentary candidates’ qualifications, which means it in effect controls who is allowed to run for parliament. Yet the 290 members are still elected by a popular vote and represent a relatively diverse cross section of Iranian society — including women and religious minority groups.

In other words, who is in this new parliament and what their agendas are actually matters in Iranian politics. Here, then, are four important things to know about the incoming parliament that will help you better understand both the current political landscape in Iran and how things are likely to change — or not — in the near future.

1) The political makeup of the parliament is not quite as simple as "moderates" versus "hard-liners"

American media tend to describe the elections as a victory of the "moderates," who support President Hassan Rouhani and the nuclear deal and generally want better relations with the West, over the "hard-liners," who want basically the opposite.

But dividing the Iranian political scene into two camps is not entirely accurate. Nor do terms like "left" and "right" or "liberal" and "conservative" make much sense in the Iranian political context. Iran has no formal political parties, so the fluid nature of factional politicking only adds to the confusion.

The political composition of the new parliament is best understood using the terminology used by Iranian media. As such, the main three factions are as follows:

Reformists (122 seats): A loose coalition of moderate reformists and conservative centrists, all under a pro-Rouhani banner known as the "List of Hope."

These candidates campaigned on helping Rouhani fulfill his 2013 campaign pledges, which included increasing rights for women and minorities, ending Iran’s diplomatic isolation, promoting foreign investment, establishing warmer relations with the West, and allowing greater social and economic freedoms at home.

This faction is the largest single bloc in the assembly. They are shy of an outright majority, however, which means they will need a segment of independents to caucus with them in order for the Rouhani administration to achieve its goals in parliament.

Principalists (84 seats): Historically the most powerful political camp. They couldn’t coalesce around a single candidate in the 2013 presidential election, and as a result they fractured into two spheres of influence. The first is a hard-line current fearful of many of Rouhani’s policies, including the nuclear agreement as well as the expansion of social freedoms at home.

The other current consists of traditional social conservatives who oppose Rouhani’s proposed social reforms but supported the nuclear deal, for which they were attacked by the hard-liners in the principalist camp. Principalists lost their previous parliamentary majority, including a number of MPs who were known to be the most vocal critics and hard-line conservative opponents of the nuclear deal.

Independents (82 seats): A hodgepodge of traditional conservative and lesser-known centrist candidates. Some observers argue that the track record of these independent candidates indicate that they would more often than not vote conservative.

Historically, though, the executive branch has wielded leverage over independents, as they are bound by provincial campaign promises and need to secure support from the executive branch to spur economic development for their respective districts.

Rather than picking specific winners and losers, Farideh Farhi, an Iranian scholar and professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, summarized the election results as "a referendum" on President Rouhani’s leadership and vision for the country. With principalists losing their conservative majority, it’s safe to assume that Rouhani will have some degree of leverage to enforce a mandate in parliamentary affairs.

2) For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, women will outnumber clerics in parliament

Eighteen women — the highest number in the history of the Islamic Republic — were elected to parliament. Clerics, on the other hand, received an all-time low of just 16 seats.

The majority of the new female MPs ran under the pro-Rouhani coalition banner, while a handful ran as independents. Additionally, in a complete turnover, all nine hard-line conservative female lawmakers of the previous parliament lost their reelection bids.

Of the 16 clerics elected to parliament, 13 have conservative political leanings and three have more moderate leanings.

Iran’s incoming group of precedent-setting female lawmakers will likely become the "new normal" in parliamentary elections. Iran’s Guardian Council approved more than 6,200 parliamentary candidates for the 2016 elections, and 586 of them were women. That’s almost double the previous number of female candidates in the 2012 parliamentary vote.

With Iran’s massive youth population generally less ideological than its predecessors, Iran’s post-revolution generations are embracing pluralistic politics. This suggests that the steady decline of the number of clerics in parliament since their peak in 1979 will only continue.

Haleh Esfandiari, director emeritus of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, told me she anticipates that the reformists among the women will push for legislation to improve the status of women, especially in seeking to amend the controversial Family Protection Law that many believe discriminates against women.

"In this endeavor," says Esfandiari, "they will no doubt enjoy the support of President Rouhani and his vice president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi. They, in turn, will provide backing in the parliament, for the government's agenda."

How much support the women’s faction will receive from their male counterparts in the assembly, however, is less clear. "In the past, the conservative parliamentarians, including conservative women MPs, have blocked any effort at strengthening women’s rights," Esfandiari cautioned.

Women make up more than 50 percent of Iran’s population but will only hold 6 percent of the parliamentary seats. This means, then, that this incoming faction will face an enormous amount of pressure from female voters, who will expect them to be more proactive in their efforts to promote women’s affairs than the outgoing women’s faction.

In addition, their social-conservative male counterparts will certainly test many of the first-term female MPs when it comes to women’s and family affairs legislation.

But the women of Iran have long grown accustomed to cultural and political pressure and have ultimately found ways to navigate Iran’s patriarchal society. Well-educated and politically reengaged, women’s rights activists will continue to work toward the near-term goal of seeing the number of women in parliament eventually grow to at least 30 percent.

The 2020 parliamentary elections could very well be another record-setting year for women.

3) The new parliament’s influence over critical national security and foreign policy issues will be minimal

The parliament’s ability to project power abroad is very limited. The incoming assembly will have a negligible impact on major issues important to the US and other Western countries, including human rights violations, state sponsorship of terrorist groups, and support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

That’s because such policy issues are handled by unelected institutions that wield far greater influence.

Iran’s constitution constrains parliament by requiring the powerful constitutional watchdog Guardian Council to veto any legislation it deems un-Islamic or unconstitutional. Two additional parallel unelected institutions also run counter to the parliament’s authority: the High Council of Cultural Revolution, which weighs in on and can influence domestic socio-cultural legislation, and the Supreme National Security Council, which reviews foreign policy issues relevant to national security, such as last year’s nuclear accord.

Finally, the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iran’s foreign and strategic policy cannot be overstated. As Iran expert Afshon Ostovar noted in a recent article for Vox, the IRGC is "the chief mechanism of Iranian coercive power" and "controls Iran’s most important strategic deterrent, its ballistic missile program, and facilitates relations with Iran’s closest regional allies and clients, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Shia militias in Iraq, and the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria."

On the issue of Iran’s contentious relationship with Saudi Arabia, however, the parliament may provide Rouhani with a bit of daylight.

As Iran-Saudi tensions have escalated over the past two years, hard-line MPs in the previous parliament harshly criticized Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for trying to deescalate tensions between the two regional rivals. With greater domestic support in parliament, the Rouhani administration will have a longer diplomatic leash to reestablish outreach efforts with the Saudis.

Overall, though, the supreme leader and other unelected institutions will continue to remain firmly in control of balance of power, at the expense of Iran’s democratically elected institutions.

4) Where the parliament could actually have impact on is ensuring Rouhani’s legacy with a second term as president

A more amenable parliament means Rouhani will be in a better position to carry out the reforms he’s promised and thus increases his chances of winning reelection in 2017 (and not becoming the first one-term president in the history of the Islamic Republic).

A second term for Rouhani will mean having a parliamentary consensus on advancing his economic agenda and the continued implementation of the nuclear deal. Rouhani’s administration is largely credited (or blamed) inside Iran for the historic nuclear agreement made with the United States and other world powers.

But many conservatives and hard-liners remain opposed to it and want to obstruct its implementation.

Earlier this month, for instance, more than 100 members of the outgoing conservative-led parliament penned a letter to the president, accusing the US of backtracking on its obligations under the nuclear agreement and asking Rouhani to respond by threatening that Iran would "resume its previous nuclear activities within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)," should the nuclear deal continue to bear no economic fruit for Iran.

Rouhani needs a second term as president to continue the implementation of the nuclear deal and to ensure that his signature achievement will continue to be built upon by an endorsed successor in 2021, rather than falling into the hands of Iran’s more hard-line forces who opposed the deal.

But when I spoke with Farzan Sabet, a fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, he cautioned against overstating the significance of pro-Rouhani moderate gains in the parliament. Even with the political capital gained from last year’s nuclear accord, said Sabet, "Rouhani may face a limited consensus on expanding social and political freedoms."

Even though many traditional principalists, such as the current speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, publicly supported the Rouhani administration’s efforts in securing the nuclear agreement, they don’t agree with the centrists and reformists on a number of sociopolitical issues.

"Critically, the election results will (largely) deny hard-liners the use of parliament as a platform to advance their agenda, forcing them to make greater use of unelected power centers like the judiciary and security forces or, in some instances, greater compromise with moderates," Sabet told me.

Ultimately what this incoming parliament will provide is more time for President Rouhani to secure his reelection bid, and use his potential second term to continue to fulfill what he was originally elected to do: end Iran’s international isolation, lift sanctions, repair the economy, and try to revive social and political freedoms against the will of Iran’s unelected centers of power.

Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani is an independent Iran researcher. Find him on Twitter @Hanifzk.