Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Iran Elections 2016 Early Thoughts

With many seats remaining unselected until the run-off election, a large number of independents with uncertain affiliations, and overlapping elections lists, there is much left unresolved by the dual Iranian elections. Despite this obvious truth, partisans on both sides in the West have rushed to claim that the results fit their pre-conceived notions of what would happen, and what this means in a larger sense. This is not helped by the spin from Iranian politicians and media. I have seen a bit of both positive and negative; a more complicated scenario which seems too difficult for the hacks to comprehend or accept.

There are a few interesting and undeniable facts about the election.

1) The leading vote-getter was a reformist. Mohammad Reza Aref, was a vice president under Mohammad Khatami, and continues to be a reformist. His revolutionary credentials are without question, yet he managed to pass the Guardian Council's vetting in both the 2013 presidential election (before withdrawing and throwing his support behind eventual winner Rouhani), and this election. He ran in Tehran, the most cosmopolitan and therefore potentially "liberal" part of the country, but the fact that he was able to receive the most votes says a lot.

2) Rafsanjani was able to receive a lot of votes. I've written a lot on Hashemi Rafsanjani in the past and for good reason; he is one of the most interesting remaining revolutionary leaders. He conspired with Khamenei to remove Ayatollah Montazeri as Deputy Supreme Leader, yet since 2009 has aligned himself with the moderates and reformists. He has been wildly unpopular for his perceived corruption, as well as his political positions, but he seems have to changed this. The state-sponsored persecution of his family may have something to do with reformists and moderates accepting him.

3) The overlapping lists don't help in understanding the political bent of the Majles and Assembly of Experts. The wonderful folks at IranPolitik.com have posted this great graphic illustrating the complexity of the lists and how the actual results are hard to understand at this point

The "List of Hope", billed by US media and others as a reformist-moderate coalition, is actually more socially conservative and likely hostile to the US than it would seem.

Here is the corresponding graphic for the Majles:
This is hard to bill as a "reformist" victory, as the List of Hope is a mixture of reformists, moderates and conservative pragmatists. Additionally, a 27.5% share, while currently the largest, is not so significant. 

This is understandable as Iranian politics are notoriously faction-based, and personal issues can cause individuals to switch alliances. Ali Motahari, a conservative with somewhat pragmatic inclinations is a prime example of this. He was on the List of Hope, but no one in their right mind would categorize him as a reformist.

4) The List of Hope did very well in Tehran, but less so in other parts of the country. This shows that Tehran isn't necessarily Iran, but also that there is a concentration of like-minded individuals in this area. 

5) Results outside Tehran really cut into the List of Hope's success in the capital. While Aref has a slight chance to become the speaker of the Majles, there are still plenty of conservative voices that will strongly oppose this. 

6) The positive feelings about the Iran Deal in the less anti-Western population are clearly evident in Tehran. Despite obvious tampering, and some ridiculous rulings from the Guardian Council (approving a 24 year old to run for the clerical body, the Assembly of Experts, is laughable), the Iranian public seems to have accepted the regime for at least this election.

7) The Majles does not have much power to change the law no matter (see the "changed" child marriage law under Khatami on the top of page 5), but it is a symbolic victory of sorts, and that a clear reformist ended up with the most votes should deeply frighten the hardliners.

8) The Assembly of Experts results could come back to haunt the hardliners. There appears to be a sizable block of reformists/moderates/pragmatists that are capable of preventing a hardline Supreme Leader or Supreme Council if Khamenei dies this term. Additionally, two of the most hardline candidates lost their seats, Ayatollahs Yazdi, and Mesbah Yazdi. Hardliner Gholam-ali Haddad-Adel also lost his seat in the Majles

9) The incredibly low incumbency rate (30%) makes the situation even more unclear. As many of the individuals are new, it is uncertain how they may be as members of parliament. 

I still support the JCPOA. Frankly, there was no chance of continuing the level of sanctions necessary to force the regime change we desperately want, especially given the unwillingness of European partners, not to mention the much less friendly Russian and Chinese interests. It is unrealistic to argue that other states would have gotten on board with unending sanctions. Italy and Greece have been highly dependent on Iranian oil, as has India, South Korea and South Africa, all countries that otherwise may have accepted a US political position. The result was not ideal, but given the number of disqualifications, a very strong showing in Tehran for a clearly defined reformist is encouraging. The hardliners are threatened by the results, and while their ability to control the population through their standard nefarious methods remains mostly unchecked, the ideological threat of a reform-minded populace has to be of concern for them.