By Dr. Mohammed Nuruzzaman
The Iranian Reformists have won big in the latest parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections held on February 26, 2016. They bagged 15 out of a total of 16 seats in the 88-member Assembly of Experts from the Tehran province. They also took all 30 parliamentary seats allocated for the Tehran constituency. Overall, the Reformists (in collaboration with the Centrists) have captured a plurality of parliamentary seats nationally. This was a big victory since they were a marginalized group in both bodies for over a decade – in the parliament since 2004 and in the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that elects the Supreme Leader, since 2006.
The global media has projected that the Reformists’ political gains will deal a big blow to the agenda of Iranian hardline conservatives, also known as the Principlists. They have been accused of blocking President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts (this link is broken) to deepen economic and political ties with the West, and undermining his government’s mandate to continue détente policy with the West and further Iran’s readiness to ‘move from theocracy to a more open democracy’. In view of Iran’s political realities and how the Iranian political system actually works, such optimism sounds a bit unrealistic. Iran is under tremendous economic and political pressure to re-engage with the West but a quick détente with the US or a shift from ‘theocracy’ to Western-style democracy seems to be a remote possibility. Some policy changes, especially in the economic realm, are in the offing, regardless of who wins or loses the elections. A general policy of deepening engagement with Europe is poised to take root but Iran’s relations with the US are likely to remain icy for years to come, primarily for ideological reasons, briefly highlighted below.
A short analysis of the elections is in order here first. Geographically, the reformists’ political momentum primarily remains limited to the Tehran province, while the Principlists have done comparatively better in the countryside. Secondly, Iran’s political system defies clearly defined dividing lines between moderates, Reformists and hardliners. In other words, considerable overlap exists between different political persuasions. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s ‘list of hopes’ (a grouping of the Reformists and moderates for electoral purposes), for example, included some known hardliners, namely Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani. Ali Larijani, speaker of the outgoing parliament, is branded both as a moderate and a Principlist, because of his shifting positions on national issues. Thirdly, the Reformists and the Principlists share consensus on basic national issues, such as Iran’s right to a nuclear program or Iran’s preeminent position in the Gulf and the Middle East. Their differences are over what should be the appropriate strategies to achieve the goals, not over the goals per se. The Reformists see political and economic engagements with the outside world as the right strategy; the Principlists or hardliners prefer confrontation with the West, the US in particular, to maintain Iran’s independence from foreign domination, and to ensure Iran’s rights in the West-dominated global order.
The Resurgence of the Reformists
The current rounds of parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections have no doubt strengthened the position of President Rouhani in Iran’s hardliners-dominated power structure. This is not, however, the first time that the Reformists have emerged as a rival power block to their hardline counterparts. In Iran’s nearly four decades of post-revolutionary history, the Reformists have captured political power at least three times. In August 1989, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a known political moderate, was elected president. Reformist President Mohammad Khatami won a landslide victory in 1997 presidential election and his fellow political Reformists routed the hardline conservatives in the sixth parliamentary elections of 2000. President Rouhani’s election as Iran’s seventh president in June 2013 and the latest resurgence of the Reformists in parliamentary elections have challenged, though not ended, the decade-long dominance of the Principlists in Iran’s political system.
The Reformists’ every political resurgence, if noted carefully, was followed by policy initiatives to re-engage Iran with the West, politically as well as economically. President Hashemi Rafsanjani took pragmatic initiatives to improve relations with the neighbors, especially the Gulf Arab neighbors, and the European countries. The end of the long Iraq – Iran War (1980 – 1988) and Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, who called on the Arab people to rise up against their pro-US oppressive despots, contributed to a thaw in Iran – Arab relations. The Rafsanjani government, more importantly, undertook pro-market economic reforms to encourage foreign direct investments and transfer of technologies into the war-ravaged economy and thus reintegrate Iran into the global economy. The Islamic conservatives branded Rafsanjani’s open policies to the outside world as contradictory to the revolutionary ideals. The left-leaning clerics led by former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi, a prominent figure of the 2009 ‘Green Movements’, also interpreted Rafsanjani’s pro-market reforms as counterproductive. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei equated reforms with westernization of Iran. Finally, reforms halted.
President Khatami further pursued the liberalization program initiated by the Rafsanjani government but again the Islamic leftists, who were being branded as reformists by then, much disliked the idea of free-market economy and argued for rule of law domestically and détente with neighboring countries to create a growth environment for Iran. The slump in global oil prices in the late 1990s, coupled with recessionary pressures in the global economy, were the major stumbling blocks to Khatami’s liberalization program. His reelection as president in 2001 hardly facilitated the implementation of reforms, largely due to obstructionist policies by the Principlists in different government bodies.
Political and economic reforms under the Rafsanjani and Khatami governments did not quite fit the 1979 revolutionary ideals. They may be viewed as deviations from the goals of the late Ayatollah Khomeini sought through the revolution. Khomeini used the slogan of ‘independence, freedom and the Islamic Republic’ to chart out an independent course for Iran in domestic and global politics. He openly declared the US as the enemy number one of Islamic Iran and sought independence from US domination. The ‘Islamic government’, as Khomeini envisioned it, would be a perfect model to balance human social and economic progress based on divine laws and injunctions, as revealed in the Qur’an and practiced by Prophet Muhammad. That required Islamic Iran to reduce structural dependence on the un-Islamic, oppressive and exploitative capitalist global economy controlled by the US. Dependence on the US and the West was viewed as loss of Iran’s political and economic independence. Khomeini once said: ‘We must isolate ourselves to achieve independence’, while simultaneously advising the Islamic revolutionaries to discard isolationist policies to avoid ‘defeat’ and ‘annihilation’. Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami attempted to ease tensions with the West by pursuing domestic liberalization programs and pragmatic external policies, which fell in line with Khomeini’s advice to make compromises if and when it was deemed appropriate.
Iran’s pro-market reforms and pragmatic foreign policy took a U-turn under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005 – 2013). Particularly, there was a quick shift in Iran’s external policies from cooperation with the West to confrontation with the West. Strongly backed by the Principlists and the defense forces of Iran, President Ahmadinejad embarked on an anti-West policy course and refused to make concessions on the nuclear issue, which his predecessor President Khatami tried to resolve through negotiations with the European powers but ultimately made little progress. Domestically, the Ahmadinejad presidency pursued populist policies by promising oil dollars for each and every Iranian. Global hikes in oil prices from 2009 to 2013, with occasional downticks, facilitated Ahmadinejad’s policy of distributive justice. But confrontation over the nuclear issue cost the Iranian economy dearly by provoking more and more crippling sanctions from the West – the most devastating being the January 1, 2012 US and the European Union (EU)-engineered sanctions that cut Iran off from the global financial systems, brought down its oil exports and shipping industries and shut the door to foreign investment and technologies.
The sanctions, coupled with domestic economic mismanagement and corruption, were choking off the Iranian economy. In 2012, GDP shrank by -6.6 per cent, in 2013 economy improved a little and the overall contraction was -1.6 per cent. Sanctions cost the Iran economy $160 billion in oil revenues in two years (2012 – 2013) and the Iranian currency rial lost its value by 56 per cent between January 2012 to January 2014. It was this dire economic situation that greatly paved the way for the Reformists to capture political power for the third time – by President Rouhani in June 2013 and by the pro-Rouhani reformists in the February 2016 parliamentary elections. In a sense, the Reformists should be grateful to President Ahmadinejad, whose domestic economic mismanagement and confrontation with the West produced the right political environment for their surge to power.
President Rouhani successfully defeated his hardline counterparts in the 2013 election by promising the Iranians a peaceful resolution of the nuclear dispute with the US and the restoration of the economy, thus far paralyzed by sanctions. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who halted President Rafsanjani’s pro-market reforms, tacitly blessed President Rouhani to negotiate with the West and clinch a deal, despite outbursts of hostility and opposition by the hardliners. Khamenei was much pragmatic in his approach – he wanted to get sanctions lifted and promote Iran’s national interests, even if that would mean making concessions to the West and reintegrating Iran into the exploitative capitalist global economy, which Khomeini detested. Before he passed away in June 1989, Khomeini wrote a series of letters advising Khamenei to sacrifice any aspects of Islam to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei, as it turns out, has followed that advice faithfully by giving his consent to nuclear negotiations with the US.
The Limits to Détente
But, how far would Iran go to pursue its current détente policy with the West? President Rouhani is empowered by the Reformists’ gains in the parliament where he would be able to take on the hardliners who have long since obstructed his domestic economic reforms and deepening reengagements with the West. Soon after the nuclear deal was signed with the P5+1 states (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) in July 2015, he expressed some deep optimism that the deal was ‘not the end of the way,’ but ‘a beginning for creating an atmosphere of friendship and cooperation with various countries’ (he implicitly meant the US). Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, on the contrary, said in September last year: ‘We have announced that we will not negotiate with the Americans on any issue other than the nuclear case’. His position on developing better ties with the US resonates with the hardline position that still views America as the ‘Great Satan’. In fact, Khamenei banned negotiations with the US in early October 2015 claiming that such negotiations would subject Iran to US political, economic and cultural influence. That was an effective brake on President Rouhani’s optimism to start a new chapter of relations with the US.
Khamenei is willing to improve relations with the West to the extent that it would only promote, not jeopardize, Iran’s national interests. He is unlikely to welcome efforts to improve Iran’s frayed relations with the US, though not with other Western countries such as France, Britain, Italy or Germany because it runs the risk of undermining the revolutionary spirit of 1979. After all, the revolution was exclusively against US interference in and domination of Iran, which Ayatollah Khomeini successfully exploited to create serious anti-American popular feelings among Iranians and establish his brand of Islamic Republic. Intensive re-engagement with the US would simply question the raison d’etre of the revolution. Definitely, not going back to the US orbit but keeping away from it, while not antagonizing the Americans too much, appears to be the policy choice of Khamenei. He has the solid backing of significant power bases in Iran – the Guardian Council that vets candidates for elections and scrutinizes all laws passed by the parliament whether or not they conform to Islamic laws and norms, the powerful Revolutionary Guards and the Assembly of Experts, among others.
President Rouhani and the Reformists’ cherished policy of opening to the West much depends on their ability to sway or overshadow the power cogs in the Iranian political system – a slim possibility, at best, under present circumstances. Gaining a plurality or even a majority of seats in the parliament, as the Khatami government once won, would not be enough. The Office of Faqih, commonly called the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, backed by the Revolutionary Guards, wield real power in Iran. These institutions are traditionally dominated by the religious conservatives or the Principlists. The Reformists may not be able to make significant dents in these institutions anytime soon, despite their recent gains in the parliament and the Assembly of Experts.
The Reformists’ enthusiasm to re-engage with the West seems to have received lukewarm response from the US. While the nuclear deal has resulted in the lifting of the UN Security Council and the EU-imposed sanctions, some unilaterally imposed sanctions by the US are still in place. Iran’s recent test-firing of ballistic missiles has further complicated the prospects of improved ties between Tehran and Washington, which the latter has sharply reacted to by imposing new sanctions on nearly a dozen individuals and companies presumably linked to Iran’s ballistic missiles program. The anti-Iran hawks in the US Congress, both Republican and Democrat, who vehemently opposed the deal with Iran are now out to exploit the missile issue to create pressure on Iran, and could potentially call for the US to walk away from the deal altogether. Similarly, the Iranian hardliners have found some new wiggle room to question the benefits of dealing with the US.
As a matter of fact, a host of uncertainties continues to characterize Iran – West relations, even after the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal. In the short and medium term, Iran’s economic interactions and ties with the EU member states would improve but relations with the US would continue to unravel for quite a long period of time, if not for good. While détente with Europe would put an to end Iran’s economic and political isolation, détente with the US is a non-starter, a remote possibility, at least for now. A new beginning might be possible in the long term provided the mutually hostile powerful domestic constituencies in Iran and in the US radically change their perceptions and positions first.
Dr. Mohammed Nuruzzaman is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org . His research webpage can be accessed at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Mohammed_Nuruzzaman