May 3, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Election Strengthens Moderates
On Friday, April 29, Iran held a runoff election for the 68 Majles seats for which no candidate received at least 25% of the vote in the February 26 first round. With virtually all 290 Majles seats now decided (except for two with results in dispute), supporters of President Rouhani will hold about 130 seats—not a majority but a clear plurality. The hardliners who have held nearly 200 of the Majles seats since 2004 have been reduced substantially to about 125 seats. The remaining seats are held by independents and five members of minority religious communities (Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians). The February round decided all 88 seats in the clerical body called the Assembly of Experts, which serves an eight-year term and which will choose the next Supreme Leader in the event of the passing of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In that election, several major hardliners lost their Assembly seats, increasing the chances that the next Supreme Leader will be an ally of Rouhani and his political benefactor, regime stalwart, and former President, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.
Iran’s Majles plays a limited role in defense and foreign policy issues, but has substantial influence on economic and social policy. The strength of moderates in the incoming body will enable Rouhani to continue to cut subsidies and strengthen his bid to allow more freedom of expression. More significant than their impact on actual policies is that the elections augur well for Rouhani’s reelection prospects in June 2017. His reelection race will take place just months after the next U.S. president takes office, amid concerns in the international community that the landmark nuclear agreement may not survive leadership transitions in both countries. Rouhani’s reelection in 2017 would virtually ensure that Iranian hardliner criticism of the deal—and of the modest benefits of sanctions relief to date—does not translate into an Iranian withdrawal from the agreement.
Supreme Leader Khamenei tacitly accepted the nuclear deal because he recognized that opposing it could trigger massive unrest in light of the harsh effect of sanctions on Iran’s economy. However, he continues to criticize the fact that the remaining U.S. terrorism, proliferation, and human rights-related sanctions on Iran are deterring European banks from resuming some financial transactions with the country. The Supreme Leader’s criticisms—coming as the United States has imposed additional sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program in response to Iran’s continued missile tests—have emboldened hardliners, the election setbacks notwithstanding. To mollify hardliners, Rouhani has reaffirmed that Iran’s missile program will proceed apace and he has echoed Khamenei’s insistence that the United States ease remaining sanctions. Iran is threatening to take the United States to the International Court of Justice for the April U.S. court judgement awarding $2 billion in frozen Iranian assets to the victims of past Iran-backed terrorism, including the 1983 Hizballah bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut.
Even while supporting hardliner criticisms of the United States, Rouhani has touted the benefits of his strategy of international engagement. He has showcased Russia’s April 2016 delivery of the S-300 air defense system and Russia’s willingness to sell Iran new sophisticated aircraft and tanks as proof that Iran has been strengthened by his policies. His recent and upcoming meetings with European and Asian leaders demonstrate that Iran is now viewed as a potential major regional energy supplier and trade and transportation hub. Even some Gulf countries are planning new joint energy and manufacturing ventures with Iran.
Although the recent election results demonstrate public support for Rouhani’s approach, Rouhani cannot alter the core aspects of Iran’s regional policies. Iran’s foreign policy operates within guidelines set by Khamenei and enforced by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These policies are based on principles shared by moderates and hardliners: the region’s Shi’a are an oppressed minority that requires Iranian protection; key Sunni powers led by Saudi Arabia are trying to deny Iran any influence in the region; and Israel is an illegitimate feature and an instrument of U.S. policy. Even while participating in international conflict-resolution meetings, Rouhani’s government has not reduced Iran’s extensive support for key allies such as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebel movement in Yemen, Lebanese Hizballah, and Shi’a militia forces battling the so-called Islamic State in Iraq.
Even while challenging Saudi Arabia and accusing the Kingdom of indirect responsibility for the rise of the Islamic State, Rouhani is likely to try to lessen tensions between the two countries. Relations were severed outright in January when Iranian protesters sacked Saudi diplomatic facilities in response to the Saudi execution of a dissident Shi’a cleric. Rouhani contends that diplomacy can help to blunt Saudi successes, such as drawing in a wide range of Middle Eastern and African states to its December 2015 'counterterrorism coalition' that pointedly excluded Iran and its allies. Rouhani will also argue that Iran should exercise caution in supporting Iraqi Shi’a militias, which are contributing to the political weakness of Iran’s key ally in Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
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