May 5, 2016 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Parliamentary Elections are No Victory for “Moderates”

May 5, 2016 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Parliamentary Elections are No Victory for “Moderates”

Iranians cast their votes Friday in runoff elections for the quarter of parliamentary seats still in contention from February’s first round. The complete tally appears to have produced a plurality of seats for members of President Hassan Rouhani’s camp, and Western media have been quick to hail those results as a win for “moderates.” The elections, however, will change little in the Islamic Republic, where power continues to reside in unelected institutions, and where the relative “moderates” are hardly moderates at all.

The moderate-versus-hardliner dichotomy is ill-suited to the Islamic Republic. As Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator of last summer’s nuclear deal, noted in March, Iranians face a choice not between moderates and hard-liners, but hard-liners and “hard-hard-liners.” She added that Rouhani, despite being feted in Western media as a “moderate,” is himself a hardliner.

Moreover, Iran’s political apparatus excludes all candidates who oppose the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary, theocratic system of government. As in previous elections, this time the Guardian Council – which vets all parliamentary candidates – engineered the field to favor contenders it deemed most committed to revolutionary ideals.

The approved candidates can be roughly categorized as reformists (those pushing for freer political space within the confines of the Islamic Republic), pragmatists (like Rouhani, committed revolutionaries who nonetheless seek to improve ties with the West in pursuit of Iran’s interests), and principlists (those advocating a return to the core principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution).

In these elections, candidates were split among two main tickets: the “List of Hope,” backed by the reformists and pragmatists, and the “Principlists Grand Coalition.” Many ran as unaffiliated candidates, and some were backed by both tickets. Faced with a field rigged in favor of “hard-hardliners,” however, reformists and pragmatists were forced to add a number of principlist and unaffiliated candidates to their list.

Moreover, even if parliament did include genuine moderates, it lacks the power to address the country’s pressing domestic issues, like its appalling human rights record (one that has grown worse under Rouhani) or the release of reformist leaders imprisoned since the thwarted 2009 Green Movement. Such consequential decisions, after all, remain the preserve of unelected officials like the supreme leader.

This election, therefore, changes little in the Islamic Republic. After this ballot, as before, Iran’s political arena will not be a battleground between moderates and hardliners. Instead, it will remain the domain of hardliners and hard-hardliners, with both camps committed to maintaining Iran’s clerical regime.

Saeed Ghasseminejad is an associate fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Amir Toumaj is a research analyst. Follow them on Twitter @SGhasseminejad and @AmirToumaj.