Thursday, February 4, 2016

Leading up to the Iranian Elections

Iranian domestic affairs are notoriously difficult to predict. This is especially true at such an important moment in the Islamic Republic when the stakes are as high as they have ever been. Rumors, unreliable polling and opaqueness in the approval and electoral process have made this election (like most previous ones), very interesting.

I have a few expectations and predictions to share, based upon what has happened so far. Here is how I have come to these conclusions:

As I have made quite clear, I supported the Iran nuclear negotiations/JPOA/JCPOA because of the potential to influence this coming set of elections, as well as the Iranian youth in general. Empowered reformists and pragmatists/moderates, leads to more pressure for Iran domestically. This (at least temporarily) reduces its ability to be disruptive regionally and internationally (especially in Syria and the Gulf). This election is vital for hardliners as they are on the defensive from the implications of a negotiated settlement with the West. Any sort of agreement with the West goes against their core ideology, and the violation of nearly all of Khamenei's 'red lines' is indisputable.

Western hardliners have argued that the backlash against moderates and reformists by Khamenei and Iranian hardliners is from a position of strength, but this couldn't be further from the truth. This election is a chance for hardliners to take back the momentum, and the actions of the Guardian Council in rejecting various candidates, the refusal of Khamenei to overrule them, and the assorted hostile acts by the IRGC-Navy in the Gulf are all part of a larger strategy to distance Iran from the West. 

I was surprised by the numbers of reformists excluded from elections. I knew there would be a massive number of rejections, but I did not anticipate that the number would be so high. This more than anything shows the insecurity of the establishment. Rejections of moderates in addition to the previously mentioned reformists reinforces this. 

The exclusion of Hassan Khomeini, a cleric and grandson of the Islamic Republic's first Supreme Leader, is particularly troubling for democracy and reform in Iran, but I would not count him, or the reform movement out yet. 

One reason for these massive disqualifications (which is coupled with an unprecedented number of applications for these electoral races) is the complexity of rigging municipal elections on a nation-wide scale. The 2009 stolen election was much easier to manipulate because it was an election for only one position with only 2 serious candidates (4 total). The Majles has nearly 300 seats and the Assembly of Experts has 88. Because so many candidates were excluded, some of these seats have no competition (for example the provinces of Ardabil, Azerbaijan West, Bushehr, Hormuzgan, Khorasan North and Semnan), and hardliners will automatically win the seat(s) in these locations. 

While hardliners have the natural advantage as they control the bodies concerned with oversight, I would not count out the Iranian people. I expect large numbers to turn out and vote, especially for reformists and moderates. Sanctions have just been removed, and there is optimism. The challenge here is that Rouhani's efforts to repair the extensive damage of the past administration have not been entirely successful, and Iran is still struggling with inflation and budgetary issues.

The actions from the Iranian government before the elections are important. Will they cave and allow more reformists and moderates to run? There were rumors of this happening, but as of yet, it has not been confirmed. The more pragmatists are allowed to run, the further the election can swing in their favor. 

Rouhani seems to have aspirations to be the next Supreme Leader, and he knows that he will never gain this position if the hardliners handily win this election.

If there are additional plans to fix the elections I would suspect the Assembly of Experts to be around 75-80% hardliners, perhaps even more, and at least 60% of the Parliament (Majles) to be this way. I think the establishment is aware that if they go much higher, there are serious risks for another mass protest like 2009. 

The unknown for me is how badly the election has to be stolen for the Iranian public to protest en masse. 

As long as the reformist/moderate/pragmatist groups vote and expect the result to reflect their voting preferences, I would be cautiously optimistic for either a result or resulting protests. In either case, the current attitude of the Iranian state is unsustainable, and unacceptable and I see this election as key for moving towards making necessary changes.

UPDATE #1 (02/05/16): It appears as though an undetermined number of Majles candidates will now be allowed to run as the Guardian Council has reversed their decision in approximately 20-25% of cases:
Again because of the absurd opaqueness of the system it is unclear where this decision was made and why it was made. It is believed that various high-level figures were upset with the decision to bar so many candidates. At this time however, the identities and political affiliations of the candidates are unknown, so it is just as likely that hardliners, or even moderates were approved ahead of reformists.

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