Home > News > Iran’s election wasn’t about moderation or democracy. It was about how Iran will re-engage with the world.
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Iran’s election wasn’t about moderation or democracy. It was about how Iran will re-engage with the world.

- March 3, 2016
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a joint press conference with Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann after their meeting at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran on Feb. 27. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Iran’s elections last week made this clear: Politics have changed in the Islamic Republic – and it was the nuclear deal with the West that made the difference. Since the beginning of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency in 1997 until last week’s parliamentary election, the Iranian political landscape was divided between  reformists and conservatives. While reformists tended to be more liberal and advocated more cultural and political freedom, conservatives supported an extreme enforcement of sharia law and a more limited circulation of power. Now, these two groups are working together.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/03/01/iranians-took-part-in-an-election-guess-what-their-votes-mattered/”]Iranians took part in elections. Guess what: Their votes mattered.[/interstitial_link]

With Iran’s nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1, structured politics in Iran has changed. President Hassan Rouhani’s election was not a surprise. The biggest issue in the 2013 presidential election was over the costs incurred by Iran’s nuclear program — Rouhani was the only candidate who promised to work out a compromise with the United States if elected.

In Iran now, the main debate has not been over democracy or human rights, but over the Rouhani government’s purchasing of Airbus airplanes. Opposition candidates emphasized the application of “resistive economy” (a national economic structure that is resistant to any external sanctions) and warned against Western economic influence. Proponents of internationalization defended the purchase of Airbus airplanes and dismissed denunciations of the excessive economic influence of the West as amounting to “conspiracy theory.” This exemplifies the new terms of political division.

There is also the hard-liners’ argument for isolation. The supreme leader of Iran holds highly pessimistic views of the U.S. government and, even after the nuclear deal, considers it “unreliable.” From his perspective, the Western world has shifted from the goal of overthrowing the Iranian government to seeking to transform, or Westernize, it. The West strives to achieve this end, he believes, through its supporters inside Iran. Therefore, he constantly warns against the influence of the West and asks Iranians to vote against candidates who are supported by the West. Prior to the election, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei encouraged voters to vote in a manner that went completely against the U.K.’s wishes. He was referring to a piece in the BBC Persian website that says how the voters in Tehran could avoid three grand Ayatollahs to get into the assembly of experts. Finally, two of those three Ayatollahs could not win the election, so their supporters accused the winners of being the British List! That was why the supreme leader in his first statement after the election said, “Progress does not mean being digested in the stomach of global arrogance, and preserving national dignity and identity is not possible except with comprehensive and home-grown progress.”

Iranians do not appear to have followed their supreme leader. The leader’s post-nuclear deal views reveal that he will loosen Iran’s isolation only to the extent that his continued rule over the country is ensured, but that he has no intention of returning to the international community. Accordingly, Ayatollah Khamenei and his closest allies seek to forestall direct collaboration between Rouhani’s government and the West. Such collaboration between Iran and Western governments and companies improves the circumstances of certain Iranian businesses and entrepreneurs — which, according to hard-liners, helps destroy the Islamic revolution from within.

The results also spark hope for further cooperation of this nature between Rouhani and the West. With that, we observe a meaningful downward slope in the success of the internationalist list from metropolises to small towns. In Tehran, its supporters gained all of the seats; in cities with populations of over 1 million, their average victory was about 60 percent; and in small towns, it falls to one-third of the parliamentary seats.

On the other hand, the regime doesn’t want to convey to the world even the slightest sign of unrest and instability. With the ending of sanctions, the goal is limited and controlled foreign relations — neither the previous international isolation nor direct confrontation — while minimizing social discontent and minimizing the necessity of direct and costly encounters with dissidents. That was why the election took place with minimal government intervention in communication and campaigning. Unlike some previous elections, this one was characterized by no restrictions on the Internet or on mobile communication.

Internationalization might be the most practical way for the Rouhani government and the nuclear deal supporters to achieve their goals. The last clash between the reformists and the conservatives was over the controversial 2009 presidential election. The 2009 Green Movement was severely suppressed, with hundreds of dissidents jailed or murdered. Since 2009, Iranian citizens have been observing the course of events following the Arab Spring, as well as events in Syria.

The Syrian crisis has taught Iranians who are otherwise eager for change a few lessons. First, dissidents reason that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could harshly suppress Syria’s dissidents, similar behavior on the part of the Iranian regime is not at all unlikely. In addition, the same regional beneficiaries who have brought Syria to the edge of disintegration by contributing negatively to the crisis in that country could also endanger the territorial integrity of Iran. Finally, with the exception of Tunisia, the Arab Spring has not been as fruitful as the revolutionaries hoped it would be.

Generally, the Arab Spring has affected two generations of Iranians — those who experienced either the 1979 Islamic Revolution or the 2009 Green Movement — to the extent that they are less inclined to hold street protests. Instead, they choose to sustain the revolutionary essence of the Islamic Republic through internationalization and economic and cultural exchange with the West. Therefore, despite the Guardian Council’s historic disqualification of candidates, voters in Tehran sent the whole pro-Rouhani list to parliament. Remarkably, 20 of the 30 members of the list were completely unknown to the public and brand new in the political arena. This spoke to the ultimate goal of removing the anti-nuclear-deal representatives from parliament rather than replacing them with the best candidates.

Rouhani’s hands are not tied as he seeks to achieve some degree of internationalization. Low oil prices, along with infrastructure ruined during Ahmadinejad’s administration, enhance the Iranian regime’s need for Rouhani’s moderate governance. In 2005, extremists succeeded in replacing Mohammad Khatami  with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a time when the price of oil was $50 a barrel and Iran’s annual economic growth rate was 6.2 percent. As of February this year, with the price of oil at $28 a barrel, the rate of economic growth is close to zero and Iran’s public debt is greater than its public assets.

With unemployment climbing at a rate of 2 million a year, the economic crisis is startling. Even the leader and the Iran Revolutionary Guards need Rouhani’s government to handle routine administrative matters. This is evident in the healthy and peaceful manner in which the election was conducted. Although the key members of the supreme leader’s circle — including his son’s father-in-law — could not get into the next parliament, Khamenei endorsed the election, preventing any clash between Rouhani and the other parts of government.

By focusing on internationalization, Rouhani crafted a stance more comprehensive than either that of the reformists or the Green Movement. Many conservatives who opposed the reformists for various reasons — including differences with regard to religious views — are now on Rouhani’s side. And the commitment to establishing a dialogue with the world has made it possible to connect with those young people who favor establishing new relations with the world and a different lifestyle but are not necessarily pro-democracy activists.

More religious right-wing conservatives and the less politically active young plus the Reformist Party have together formed what could be called the nuclear deal and internationalization front. Despite the historic disqualification of more than 90 percent of pro-government figures from the parliamentary election, the social diversity of the pro-internationalization movement caused this group’s approved list of anonymous candidates to gather momentum in the course of one week.

Iran’s new political alignment augurs less violent and more slow-paced change, and it lacks any theoretical or doctrinal definition. But it is real — and especially in light of the diversity of the internationalization movement with regard to age and social values, may ensure that change in Iran is, for the present, likely to be more focused on the quality of daily life. It is the triumph of Airbus over democracy.

Amir Hossein Mahdavi is a researcher at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies and a graduate student at Harvard University’s Center for Middle East Studies. He previously served as an editor at several of Iran’s dailies.