MIDDLE EAST

What can President Hassan Rouhani's pro-reform coalition achieve in Iran?

A powerful setback for hard-liners in Iran’s parliamentary elections may present President Hassan Rouhani with a golden chance to speed up his country’s reopening to the world and remake an economy long weakened by Western sanctions.

The disparate political ideologies that came together under a pro-Rouhani banner to secure a large minority of parliamentary seats in last week's vote marked a victory for centrist politics, analysts said.

It also vindicated the approach taken by the moderate president, who forged an agreement last year with the United States and five other world powers to roll back Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

The test for Rouhani is whether he can work with the new parliament – and overcome vested conservative interests – to pass legislation that will help rejoin Iran’s financial sector to the world economy and pave the way for the foreign investment that has been pledged since most sanctions were eased under the nuclear deal.

Hard-liners have held Iran’s political system in a tight grip for more than a decade, starting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his combative, anti-Western rhetoric. It continued after Rouhani took office in 2013 as staunch conservatives in parliament blocked much of his agenda.

By winning 95 seats in the 290-member parliament – and with dozens still up for grabs in runoff elections or held by independents – the pro-Rouhani side secured a more cooperative legislature on at least some of the government’s policies. Conservatives have won 103 seats, 92 fewer than they had in the outgoing parliament. Runoffs will be held in late April. 

“I see this as a realignment toward the middle, bringing together those who think they can work together,” said Rouzbeh Parsi, a professor at Lund University in Sweden and director of the European Iran Research Group.

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For the United States, the results of Friday’s elections help show the popularity of the nuclear deal in Iran and signal broad support for the more conciliatory foreign policy adopted by Rouhani and his U.S.-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Two of the most prominent hard-liners were also ousted in a parallel election for the Assembly of Experts, an 88-member council that helps select Iran’s supreme leader. Clerics backed by reformists and centrists won 59% of assembly seats, up from 23%, according to the interior ministry.

“The resounding message from voters on Feb. 26 was a rejection of hard-liners and an endorsement of President Hassan Rouhani,” wrote Garrett Nada and Katayoun Kishi, Iran researchers at the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank.

Iran’s politicians are generally divided along a narrow political spectrum – with hard-liners who resist change and support Islamic theocracy at one end and reformists who favor greater democracy and social freedoms at the other. In a hybrid political system in which theocrats have the final say, coalitions of lawmakers come together and break apart with each election, depending on the political winds of the moment.

Rouhani’s efforts to repair relations with the West and strike a nuclear deal were opposed by hard-liners but won support among reformists, moderates and even some conservatives who said an agreement would end Iran’s isolation and improve the economy.

When Iran’s Guardian Council, a clerical panel that vets political candidates, disqualified thousands of mainly reformists and moderates from running in the elections, supporters of Rouhani’s policies came together under a banner called the “List of Hope” that included a diverse array of ideologies that have not always meshed in the past.

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Mohammad Reza Aref, the head of the “List of Hope” in Tehran, is a moderate, like Rouhani, and has not supported many of the reformists’ most liberal positions. The pro-Rouhani candidates won all 30 seats from Tehran, the capital, whose lawmakers often determine the direction of the parliament. Among the winning candidates were Ali Motahari and Kazem Jalali, who support the nuclear deal but are outspoken conservatives on social issues.

Analysts say Rouhani – who is up for reelection next year – is unlikely to attempt more contentious social change such as expanding rights for women, but has a more stable mandate for pursuing economic reforms.

“If Rouhani wants to become a two-term president…that will require that he show some tangible results where it affects people the most,” Parsi said. “For the overwhelming majority, the main issue is not social liberalization but the economy.”

The conservative views of some members of the list could tamp down reformists’ priorities, observers say.

“Mohammad Reza Aref might not follow the reformists,” said Nader Karimi Juni, an analyst in the reformist camp. “He could ask the radical reformists to stay silent about women’s rights or something else, and in exchange hard-liners would help elect him speaker of the parliament.”

Rouhani’s efforts to loosen state control of the economy and make oil sector and other contracts more transparent are likely to face serious opposition from entrenched hard-line forces that remain ideologically opposed to foreign investment while enjoying extensive domestic economic holdings.

Among these groups is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps paramilitary organization, which remains subject to U.S. sanctions and reportedly earns billions of dollars a year in income from transportation, construction and other industries. Rouhani is unlikely to risk a direct confrontation with the powerful group, a major obstacle toward opening up the economy.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s most powerful figure, has given tacit support to Rouhani’s agenda. The economic stagnation in a country in which half the electorate is younger than 35 was a recipe for social upheaval, and Khamenei was said to have been frustrated by hardliners in the last years of Ahmadinejad’s government, who squabbled among themselves and left domestic problems to fester.

“Khamenei was like the kindergarten teacher who had to keep peace between people who were all conservatives,” Parsi said. “My guess is he understands that on the economic front ... the government needs to legislate and reform certain things and you can’t do that if you can’t get people to vote in parliament.”

Staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India, and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran. 

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia.

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