Somewhere during the chaos of the American presidential election, Super Tuesday, and more horrifying quotes by Donald Trump, the people of Iran also held elections for parliament and their poorly named "Assembly of Experts." Despite what you may think, Iran does actually have elections and kinda believes in democracy (sort of). Last week's elections were a landslide victory for current president Hassan Rouhani and his reformist (as in the not hard-line Islamist) allies. They won all of Tehran's thirty seats (out of a total of 290 throughout the country) and secured several positions in the 88 member assembly responsible for selecting the Supreme Leader (currently Ayatollah Khamenei). Their results were less impressive in the areas outside of Tehran, but they result is still being called a victory for Iran's moderate forces. Iran's political system is extremely complicated, so it isn't exactly a surprise that few understand if this election is really important or not. This week, we'll explain the two main takeaways of the Iranian elections.
1) Iranians Mostly Want Better Relations With The West
The Iranian parliament passes laws and approves of the national budget, so they have a lot of power to help influence the direction of the country. Many have viewed the election as a referendum on last summer's nuclear deal with Iran. The deal, championed in part by Hassan Rouhani, lifted a wide range of economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for drastic limitations on Iran's nuclear research and development program. The immediate effects of Iran's economic opening to Europe have yet to be fully realized in Iranian daily life, but already its people are beginning to see the benefits of better foreign trade and investment. Just like in the United States, the national economy is a key issue in this election cycle. As Iran's oil industry begins to expand and its banking system becomes more robust (since these aren't being blocked by nearly every country in the world anymore), there is optimism that Iranian daily life will improve greatly. Iran's massive youth population is especially excited about the increased employment prospects under this new reality.
All of this helps ensure the continued viability of the nuclear deal. Iran's radical clerics and hardliners were the primary opponents of the deal, and this election has lessened their legitimacy within the Iranian political system. In addition, the sanctions were lifted with the stipulation that they could be reapplied if Iran decides to go full nuclear after all. Now that people are starting to get a taste of life without sanctions, it is clear the political backlash would be substantial if the hardliners attempted to break the deal. That being said, there are still many factions of the Iranian government which are working to undermine the deal and closer relations with the West. For instance, the Guardian Council (made up almost exclusively of Iranian religious hardliners) still has the authority to approve or deny candidates for parliament and the Assembly. They only approved about 6,000 out of 12,000 candidates in this recent election, so it would not be surprising if even fewer moderate or reformist candidates are approved in the next one.
Still, there is time before the next election for the reformists to increase their influence on an even larger scale because....
2) Reformists Have More Power In Choosing The Next Supreme Leader
The Assembly of Experts is a special political body in Iran charged with the task of selecting the Supreme Leader. Unlike the president (who only has limited power as the leader of parliament), the Supreme Leader is the ruling figurehead of Iran. The position was established during the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and was first filled by the revolution's primary leader Ayatollah Khomeini (how convenient for him). The Supreme Leader serves as both the religious leader of Iran in addition to having the political authority to sign off on most major decisions in the country. In this way, Iran has established a strange mix of authoritarian rule sprinkled with hints of democracy.
Prior to February's election, the Assembly of Experts was dominated by Iran's hard-line radical factions. These forces are by no means defeated in the Assembly, but their influence has waned a little in favor of the moderates and reformists. Since Supreme Leaders serve for life, there have only been two Supreme Leaders in the Islamic Republic's short history (Khomeini and Khamenei). Though he looks 90, Khamenei is currently in his mid-70s and has been rumored to be in poor health. It is unlikely he will live to see the next round of elections, so the newfound influence of the reformist allies can play a critical role in helping shape Iran's future for many years to come.
Despite this (somewhat) rosy outlook, we should remember that Iran is by no means a Western-friendly democratic nation. It is still guilty of flagrant human rights abuses, supports terrorist groups, and works constantly to destabilize the Middle East. Iran's reformers and moderates would still be considered radical even by the most conservative American standards. They are still outnumbered by hard-line factions and the entire political structure heavily favors conservative Islamists. But still, the newfound influence of the reformists should translate into improved relations with the West and a continued opening up of Iran to the world. For now, that is a small victory on the path to a cooperative, stable, and less radical Iran.