Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Iran: Pragmatist dealmakers in ascent

Iran: Pragmatist dealmakers in ascent
Published 11 Mar 2016 

As Rodger Shanahan has argued, celebrations of the recent round of elections in Iran as a victory for the reformist camp need to be tempered. I would go further and suggest this electoral victory doesn't belong to the reformists, but to pragmatist dealmakers

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Hashemi Rafsanjani (Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami/Getty Images)

First, a recap. All 30 parliamentary seats allocated to Tehran were won by the Supreme Council of Policy Reformists, the coalition body that negotiated the reformist list. While results outside Tehran were not so clear-cut, there is no denying that candidates endorsed by Rouhani as the 'coalition of hope' have managed to gain the upper-hand against his hard-line critics.

A similar pattern appears to hold in the all-important Assembly of Experts. This assembly has an eight-year term and is responsible for the appointment of the next Supreme Leader. Significantly, the top winner for this assembly is Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose views are much more pragmatic than the incumbent Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In an embarrassing defeat for the hardliners, two prominent members of the Assembly failed re-election and the head of the Guardian Council (which has been instrumental in vetting reformist candidates out of the race) secured the lowest votes in Tehran. This has led to stipulation that Rafsanjani's top electoral ranking would translate into the chairmanship of the Assembly and potentially the Supreme Leadership of the Islamic Republic.

So where does this leave the prospects of reform in Iran?  The gloss of this victory starts fading once we note that many candidates listed in the 'coalition of hope' are conservatives with no inclination for social or political reform. What brought third-rate reformists (third-rate because the first and second top reformist candidates were barred from contesting by the Guardian Council) and conservative candidates together was their shared dislike of the hard-liners. This was a marriage of convenience to deprive the obstructionists from electoral victory. This is indeed a significant gain for Rouhani.

President Rouhani needs the support of the parliament to push through major economic reforms. His electoral promise in 2013 was to improve the Iranian economy – to make sure the wheels turn. Securing the nuclear deal in 2015 to remove international sanctions was a remarkable feat. To take advantage of the emerging economic opportunities, however, he needs to unchain the state-controlled economy. The Iranian state is the largest employer in the country and exercises monopoly in major industries. The new parliament, dominated by pragmatist politicians, will be key to Rouhani's economic reform agenda.

To this end, the elevation of Rafsanjani is highly significant. [fold] He served as Iranian president (1989-1997) and sought to bring Iran out of isolation by expanding international trade and repairing relations with Saudi Arabia. In later years, he gained notoriety among Iranian hardliners for throwing his support behind reformist candidates in the 2009 presidential election against the firebrand president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani is of the same cloth. The Rafsanjani-Rouhani partnership proved very effective in the 2013 — giving Rouhani a landslide win — and is likely to be so again.

Rouhani's agenda has an uncanny similarity with the Chinese model. His focus on improving Iran's international standing and reviving the economy, while maintaining a safe distance away from social and political points of contention, has managed to keep him on good terms with the Supreme Leader. Rouhani is fully aware of the red-lines. One might say he was involved in drawing them, given that he has been in the inner circle of the political elite for decades.

Looking at the recent electoral victory against this background, it is hard to get excited about the prospects of change. Politics is said to be the art of the possible. The Iranian voters have clearly understood what Rouhani is seeking to achieve within the system and given him a ringing endorsement to tinker around the edges and make their lives more bearable.

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