Iran not likely to change
The assembly is the highest clerical body in Iran, which will ultimately elect a successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 76, and is suffering from ill health.
The hard-liners, most of whom objected to the nuclear deal that was struck with the international community last year, still made important gains countrywide. But the vote was considered a crushing defeat to the conservative institution that has deep influence over state affairs, especially foreign policy. The upset could signal further erosion of its power as Rouhani and his allies push their agenda of opening up to the West further. It was important that former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a reformist ally of Rouhani, had done well in the assembly’s elections. He could one day succeed Khamenei.
The results also vindicates President Barack Obama’s diplomatic approach to Iran, a country with which the US had decades of confrontational episodes. That approach continues to attract criticism from US Republicans and Arab allies of Washington alike.
Since his election as president in 2013, Rouhani sought to fend off critics at home of his decision to open up to the West and engage in difficult negotiations over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The outcome of these negotiations was seen as a litmus test for Rouhani’s so-called moderate credentials in spite of his close ties to anti-American Khamenei. Iran’s conservative clerical institution had derailed previous bids by moderates to run for president especially in 2009 when popular protests —dubbed as Iran’s Green Movement — against then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turned bloody.
Even before this latest poll, the unelected conservative Guardian Council, which gets to decide who’s allowed to run, rejected more than 60 percent of candidates, mostly reformists.
But biting international sanctions and diplomatic isolation have had an effect on Iran’s ailing economy. The country became polarized as young Iranians expressed disapproval of the tight grip that clerics and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) held over Iran’s affairs. Rouhani’s election brought hope that a new page was about to be open with the world. But it would be wrong to assume that moderates and reformists are now in control.
The hard-liners are expected to fight back. They are accusing the moderates of affiliation to foreign powers. Their loss at the assembly will force them to put pressure on ailing Khamenei to step in and rein the tide of the reformists.
The lifting of international sanctions will give a big boost to the Iranian economy, which is expected to grow at more than seven percent annually. That will help Rouhani maintain his popularity, especially among the mercantile community and Iran’s youth.
But the biggest question will be if the latest win will have a direct effect on Iran’s policy toward its neighbors. Saudi Arabia and the rest of GCC countries accuse Tehran of meddling in the region’s affairs. They have a convincing case. Iran has become a major power broker in Iraq and has invested heavily in supporting the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. Furthermore, Iran openly supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen against the legitimate government there.
These belligerent policies have widened the schism between Iran and its neighbors. The big test now will be for Rouhani and his allies in Parliament and the assembly to send clear messages that Iran is ready to mend fences with its neighbors and support a political settlement in Syria. Its bankrolling of Hezbollah in Lebanon has deepened that country’s political crises and heightened tensions between various sects and groups.
But it is doubtful that the influence of Iran’s moderates and reformists would extend beyond domestic affairs. Foreign policy will continue to be orchestrated by Khamenei and the IRG. Iran’s support of terrorism and its involvement in regional instability are a source of major concern in the Gulf region and beyond. Its threats to its neighbors are being taken seriously by Riyadh and Ankara, among others.
Still, there is a need today for triumphant Rouhani to send a message that his country’s policies will be revised.
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