Rohani’s election triumph marks new direction for Iran

Even with stunning victo­ries, Rohani’s people on their own do not have a majority in parlia­ment and deeply entrenched con­servatives are expected to fight tooth and nail against new po­litical order.

Iranians vote in parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections at a polling station in Qom, Iran, on February 26th.

2016/03/04 Issue: 46 Page: 16

The Arab Weekly
Ali Alfoneh

Washington - Iranian President Hassan Ro­hani smiled confidently when he cast his ballot at the Interior Ministry’s election headquar­ters in Tehran as Iran voted to elect a parliament and a powerful constitutional body, the Assembly of Experts.

With most of the results in from the February 26th vote, which may prove to have been one of the Is­lamic Republic’s most significant elections since 1979, Rohani’s con­fidence was not misplaced — de­spite efforts by his powerful hard-line, anti-Western opponents to sabotage his campaign by disquali­fying some 2,000 reformist candi­dates.

“The competition is over,” Ro­hani said. “It’s time to open a new chapter in Iran’s economic devel­opment based on domestic abilities and international opportunities.”

“The people showed their power once again and gave more cred­ibility and strength to their elected government,” he declared, saying he would work with any elected figures to take Iran, a potential powerhouse with vast oil and gas reserves and a deep pool of ener­getic intelligentsia, into a new era.

The elections were particularly important as the first gauge of popular sentiment since Rohani’s government signed a landmark agreement with US-led global pow­ers last July curtailing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme in return for lifting crippling econom­ic sanctions.

“The election results were surely a big victory for moderate forces and a terrifying failure for hard­liners,” observed reform-leaning analyst Saeed Laylaz. He said the vote “is a message to conservative forces that they need some kind of metamorphosis and become more moderate if they would like to sur­vive”.

Whether the diehard inheritors of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s stern brand of Islamic governance are capable of change remains to be seen; certainly they are not likely to meekly submit to Rohani’s user-friendly worldview and should not be expected to surrender power without a fight.

Rohani’s reformist-backed can­didates won at least 85 seats in the 290-member Majlis, or parliament, including a sweep of all 30 of the seats representing Tehran. Moder­ate conservatives won at least 73 seats overall.

The two groups are expected to work together, particularly on opening Iran’s moribund economy to the outside world and prob­ably in forging a more friendly for­eign policy, particularly towards the West, aspirations widely held among Iran’s 80 million popula­tion, of which 60% are under 30 years of age.

The reformist faction won its strongest presence in the Majlis since 2004 but it has not secured an outright majority. However, the combination of 158 seats is enough to give the reformist-moderate bloc a majority, clipping the wings of hard-line conservatives who have dominated Iranian politics since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Diehard conservatives took 68 seats, a dramatic plunge from the 112 they held in the outgoing par­liament. Five seats are allocated to religious minorities and the other 59 are to be decided in run-offs, probably in April.

Reformists for the first time se­cured a majority — 59% — in the 88-member Assembly of Experts, a clerical body long a bastion of the hardliners who elects Iran’s all-powerful supreme leader.

It serves for eight years, so it will likely appoint a successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 76 and reportedly in poor health. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — a political insider widely known as Kuseh, “the shark” and one of the found­ers of the Islamic Republic — is seen as a contender but the immense wealth he has accumulated does not sit well with many working-class Iranians.

The successor may be a reform­ist or someone acceptable to Ro­hani’s bloc but, more intriguingly, the assembly may decide to choose a governing council to replace the supreme leader, who has been the ultimate authority since Khomeini ruled the roost as founder of the world’s first Islamic republic.

The extent of the reformist-mod­erate breakthrough was reflected in the personal poll triumphs of the bloc’s leaders, underlining the electorate’s desire for change after nearly four decades of authoritar­ian control by Islamic zealots.

Rohani, who can now expect to easily win re-election as president in 2017, and his key ally, Rafsanjani, a former president and a wily vet­eran of Iran’s political wars, each secured more than 2 million votes to the Assembly of Experts.

Even with these stunning victo­ries, Rohani’s people on their own do not have a majority in parlia­ment and deeply entrenched con­servatives, who control the power­ful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its thuggish Basij militia, the security services and judiciary, are expected to fight tooth and nail against the new po­litical order.

And, as always, the final word on key decisions will rest with Khame­nei while he remains supreme lead­er, a post he has held since 1989.

Even so, some of his big guns have been silenced. Ayatollahs Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi and Mohammad Yazdi, the fiercest critics of Rohani and Rafsanjani, lost their seats in the Assembly of Experts.

Ali Alfoneh is a non-resident senior fellow at Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

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