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Rouhani’s Incomplete Victory in Iran’s Parliamentary Elections
Rouhani’s Incomplete Victory in Iran’s Parliamentary Elections
Open Letter to the U.S. and Iranian Leadership about the Iran Nuclear Deal
Open Letter to the U.S. and Iranian Leadership about the Iran Nuclear Deal
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets people after casting his ballot for both parliamentary and the Assembly of Experts elections at a polling station in Tehran on 26 February 2016. AFP/Iran Presidency

Rouhani’s Incomplete Victory in Iran’s Parliamentary Elections

Iran’s new parliament has many new faces, and, for the first time, more women members than clergymen. But with no clear victor after the 28 April completion of Iran’s parliamentary elections, Senior Iran Analyst Ali Vaez argues in this Q&A that President Hassan Rouhani will face many challenges and that rapid change is unlikely.

In the 28 April run-off elections for parliament, Iranians have filled the 68 seats left vacant in the first round of voting back in February, when candidates for these seats failed to win more than 25 per cent of the votes. Now that it is over, can you tell us who has won and who has lost?

The tallies vary from one news outlet to another. For example, the Associated Press reports that supporters of President Hassan Rouhani won 143 out of the 290 parliamentary seats, while the New York Times put that number at 122. This discrepancy is the result of the absence of a traditional political-party system in Iran, the fluidity of the country’s factional landscape, and its confusing characterisation into moderates, hardliners, conservatives and reformists.

Iran’s political landscape can be divided into four camps: those who prioritise the system’s republican institutions (republicans) and those prioritising its theocratic bodies (theocrats). The former camp is generally aligned with President Rouhani and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, while the latter takes its cues from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Each camp is further divided into pragmatists and radicals, or those who seek, respectively, more gradual or faster change. With this in mind, I would argue that the new parliament is composed of 123 republicans (almost all pragmatists), 80 theocrats (mostly pragmatists, with a few radicals) and 84 independents.

From Rouhani’s perspective, this is certainly a satisfactory result. The republicans gained political ground and ousted leading radical theocrats (a group that was a real nuisance to the Rouhani administration). The theocrats who control most media platforms and election-management bodies stacked the deck against the republicans through negative campaigning and heavy pre-election disqualifications of candidates. Dealt a bad hand before the campaign, the republicans ended up playing quite well.

How significant is the presence of a large number of independents?

This is not a new phenomenon. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, 35 per cent of first-time lawmakers were independents. This cohort’s political behaviour is difficult to predict. They tend to coalesce into political blocs only after a new parliament convenes, in this case on 27 May. Their choices could determine the balance of power. Rouhani could use the power of the purse to draw some of them into a republican bloc, but it is unclear whether he could use them to build an absolute majority.

In fact, the independents could form their own bloc or split the legislature into blocs of equal weight, thus giving rise to a hung legislature that would slow – rather than facilitate – decision making, at least on issues over which there is limited elite consensus. Or independents could vote on an issue-by-issue basis, most probably throwing their weight behind the republicans on economic policies while siding with the theocrats on socio-political matters.

Can it be said that the run-off elections gave Iran’s republicans a working majority in parliament for the first time since President Mohammad Khatami left office a decade ago?

That depends on your definition of a “working majority”. The republicans’ ability to gain a relative majority depends on how the independents position themselves. Even if the next parliament were to come decisively under the republicans’ control, Iran’s governmental institutions would not necessarily work in harmony. During President Khatami’s first term in office, both the legislative and executive branches were in the hands of his allies, yet their reforms were blocked by the theocratic-controlled Guardian Council, which vets all legislation. His successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s theocratic government, on the other hand, was at daggers drawn with parliament for most of its time in office as a result of factional infighting.

What kind of victory have Rouhani and his allies then won?

With just 26 per cent of incumbents winning re-election, the election has fundamentally changed the complexion of the parliament and shifted the balance of power in favour of the republicans. Given that the most ardent critics of the nuclear agreement negotiated by Rouhani were ousted, the legislature will likely be more cooperative when it comes to implementing the deal. It is less likely to grill the minister of foreign affairs and other officials who were involved in the nuclear talks.

But this does not mean that republicans will have a blank check for advancing Rouhani’s agenda. As Iranian economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani has explained, entrenched interests and diverging viewpoints mean that even the cooperation of this friendlier parliament in implementing Rouhani’s economic agenda should not be taken for granted. On almost all other major policy decisions, from economic to socio-political issues and relations with the West, the political establishment is deeply divided and these differences will come to the surface.

Anyone who exaggerates Rouhani and his allies’ election victory is likely to be disappointed. It’s not hard to imagine that a year from now some will say that the republicans failed to usher in change, despite dominating both the executive and legislative branches. In fact, the republicans control, at most, the executive and half of the legislative branch of government. Meanwhile, the theocrats are in control of all other power centres: the judiciary, the Guardian Council, the Assembly of Experts, the armed forces, the state television, and so on. Those who expect rapid or radical change should temper their expectations.

How important is the selection of the new parliament’s leadership?

Competition for the speaker’s position could split the republican coalition. The main contenders for the post are incumbent Speaker Ali Larijani and Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president under President Mohammad Khatami. Aref, who withdrew his 2013 presidential bid in favour of Hassan Rouhani, received the highest number of votes in this year’s parliamentary elections, and he therefore believes the speaker’s mantle is rightfully his. But in the past few weeks, 145 elected parliamentarians made a point of meeting with Larijani versus 70 who went to see Aref. This relative show of popularity suggests that the former speaker is in a stronger position.

Rouhani’s preference could also play a role. Larijani is a pragmatist theocrat, who has served as speaker for the past eight years and has significant clout with other power centres, especially the judiciary, which is headed by his younger brother. Despite being a theocrat, he is – like Rouhani – a pragmatist and thus has a good working relationship with the president and was tremendously supportive of the nuclear agreement. He stands a better chance of helping the government create consensus among different lobbies than Aref, who is a pragmatist republican with no parliamentary experience. Some have suggested that Larijani and Aref might share the leadership position, alternating on an annual basis, but it is unclear whether such a compromise would be either workable or acceptable to them. If the competition escalates, it could split the republican camp into pro-Larijani and pro-Aref factions, reducing republicans’ chances of outvoting the theocratic faction on key issues.

Are there any other striking changes in the new parliament?

For the first time, the parliament will have more women than clerics. Seventeen women were elected, up from nine in the outgoing parliament. The number of clerics in Iran’s parliament has gradually decreased since the 1979 revolution. While clerics assumed 50 per cent of the seats in the first parliament, they will represent a mere 6 per cent of the next legislature’s membership. This is reflective of changing social trends in Iran; a young and vibrant society where women comprise more than 60 per cent of university graduates, and where technocratic skills are deemed more valuable than a religious pedigree. Having said this, the policy implications of these shifts are unclear.

Do the parliamentary elections signal how Rouhani will do in next year’s presidential poll?

Parliamentary elections often presage the outcome of the subsequent presidential contest. If presidential elections were held today, Rouhani would likely be re-elected. But Rouhani’s rivals know this, too, and will do everything in their power over the next fourteen months to make him Iran’s first one-term president. The outcome of the parliamentary elections has probably increased both the theocrats’ concerns and their motivation to block Rouhani from gaining further ground in the aftermath of the nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions.

Sharp differences between the president and Supreme Leader Khamenei on economic priorities will also not help Rouhani win a second mandate. The president and his republican allies believe economic interdependence can deter outside pressure; they also believe that economic growth is crucial, and that without absorbing $30-50 billion of foreign investment per year Iran will not be able to reach its target of 8-per-cent economic growth. The leader and his theocrat allies, however, prefer economic self-reliance over the foreign cultural and political influence that they fear would come with Western economic investment. These tensions are bound to worsen in the run-up to the 2017 presidential elections.

Open Letter to the U.S. and Iranian Leadership about the Iran Nuclear Deal

Negotiating parties are now within touching distance of reinstating the JCPOA, but a period of stasis threatens to undo the progress made. In this open letter, over 40 former top European officials urge the U.S. and Iranian leadership to see the negotiations through to a successful outcome.

This open letter has been signed by members of the European Leadership Network, Board members of the International Crisis Group and Council members from the European Council on Foreign Relations.

We write to express our growing concern that negotiations to restore Iranian compliance with, and U.S. return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) appear to have entered a period of stasis that threatens to undo the real and welcome progress made in recent months toward reinstating a non-proliferation achievement that is crucial for international peace and security.

At a time when transatlantic cooperation has become all the more critical to respond against Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, for U.S. and European leaders to let slip the opportunity to defuse a nuclear crisis in the Middle East would be a grave mistake.

The JCPOA was a success. Persistent multilateral diplomacy, in which several of the undersigned were personally engaged, secured an agreement that advanced our shared non-proliferation goals. Preserving the benefits of a deal limiting Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium, capping its levels of enrichment and extending the timeline for the accumulation of fissile material that could be used for a potential weapon, all under the watchful eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is the reason why European governments rejected the Trump administration’s reckless decision to abandon the deal without a viable alternative and have worked hard to keep the deal alive following the 2018 U.S. withdrawal.

The strategy that the U.S. followed for more than two years after this withdrawal, based on “maximum pressure” alone, yielded little but nuclear escalation, dangerous regional sparring and economic deprivation for the Iranian people. The legacy of this strategic error can today be measured in the tons of enriched uranium Iran has since accumulated, including uranium enriched to near weapons-grade; in the thousands of advanced centrifuges it is spinning; and in the rapidly dwindling timeframe for Iran to reach a breakout capability. President Biden rightly identified a mutual return, by the U.S. and Iran, to their respective commitments under the 2015 deal as a necessary course correction.

Since April 2021, negotiations in Vienna have painstakingly but productively forged a draft document that will reverse Iran’s nuclear advances, in return for relief from U.S. sanctions imposed during the Trump administration that are inconsistent with the JCPOA. As the EU’s Josep Borrell put it over a month ago, “a final text is essentially ready and on the table”.

There are two possible scenarios ahead. In one, the U.S. swiftly shows decisive leadership and requisite flexibility to resolve remaining issues of political (not nuclear) disagreement with Tehran. In the other, the parties enter a state of corrosive stalemate, serving neither side’s interests, that risks devolving into a cycle of increased nuclear tension, inevitably countered by the further application of coercive tools.

We know that the politics of this issue are difficult, particularly on issues like the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, which is reportedly the last lingering issue of contention. While the details are of course for U.S. policymakers to determine, we believe that there are ways to provide the counter-terrorism benefits of the current designation while still accommodating Iran's specific request, and consider it imperative that these be fully explored. For its part, Iran should not expect a nuclear deal to address broader areas of disagreement between Tehran and Washington. Both sides must approach this final phase of negotiation with an understanding that the strategic implications of failure would be grave and profound.

Based on our long experience in diplomacy and statecraft, we see a deal as eminently possible. Having come within touching distance, we urge President Biden and the Iranian leadership to demonstrate flexibility in tackling an issue of vital significance to the global nonproliferation regime and regional stability, and see these negotiations through to a successful conclusion.

Signatories:

Czech Republic

  1. Jan Kavan, former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, former President of the UNGA, and Chairman of the Board, Czech-Slovak-Iranian Chamber of Commerce (CSIOK)


Denmark

  1. Mogens Lykketoft, former Foreign Minister and President of the UN 70th General Assembly


France

  1. Gérard Araud, former Permanent Representative of France to the UN, former Director-General for Political and Security Affairs
  2. Michel Duclos, former Ambassador and Special Advisor, Institut Montaigne (Paris)
  3. Jean-David Levitte, former Permanent Representative of France to the UN
  4. Général d’armée aérienne (ret) Bernard Norlain, former Commander of Air Defence Command and Air Combat Command


Germany

  1. Wolfgang Ischinger, former Ambassador and Chairman of the Munich Security Conference
  2. Joschka Fischer, former Foreign Minister and former Vice-Chancellor
  3. Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
  4. Karsten D. Voigt, former Chairman of the German-Russian parliamentary group in the Bundestag and former President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly
  5. General (ret) Klaus Naumann, former Chief of Defence Germany and former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee


Hungary

  1. Balázs Csuday, former Permanent Representative of Hungary to the UN (Vienna)


Italy

  1. Giancarlo Aragona, former Ambassador and former Secretary-General of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
  2. General (ret) Vincenzo Camporini, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force and Chief of Defence General Staff
  3. Admiral (ret) Giampaolo Di Paola, former Minister of Defence
  4. Dr Nathalie Tocci, Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and former Special Advisor to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borell
  5. Stefano Stefanini, former Ambassador and Executive Board of the European Leadership Network
  6. Carlo Trezza, former Ambassador for Disarmament and non-proliferation, Chairman of MTCR and UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board for Disarmament Affairs


Lithuania

  1. Vygaudas Usackas, former Foreign Minister and former EU Ambassador to Russia and Afghanistan


Netherlands

  1. Prof Klaas de Vries, former Minister of Home Affairs


Norway

  1. Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister and former Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Deputy Chair of The Elders


Poland

  1. Bogdan Klich, former Minister of National Defence
  2. Andrzej Olechowski, former Minister of Foreign Affairs
  3. Prof Adam D. Rotfeld, Warsaw University and former Minister of Foreign Affairs


Serbia

  1. Goran Svilanović, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and former Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council


Spain

  1. Javier Solana, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, former High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and former NATO Secretary-General


Sweden

  1. Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and former Foreign Affairs Minister
  2. Dr Hans Blix, former Foreign Minister and former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
  3. Rolf Ekéus, former Chairman of the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, and former Ambassador of Sweden to the United States


Turkey

  1. Hikmet Çetin, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Speaker of the Grand National Assembly
  2. Vahit Erdem, former Under Secretary of the Defence Industry and former Vice President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly
  3. Ahmet Üzümcü, former Permanent Representative of Turkey to NATO and former Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)
  4. Tacan Ildem, former Assistant Secretary-General, NATO and former Ambassador


United Kingdom

  1. The Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth, former Defence Secretary
  2. Sir Tony Brenton, former Ambassador to the Russian Federation
  3. Lord (Des) Browne of Ladyton, former Defence Secretary and Chairman of the European Leadership Network
  4. The Rt Hon Alistair Burt, former Minister of State for the Middle East at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  5. Lord (David) Hannay of Chiswick, former Ambassador to the EU and to the UN
  6. The Rt. Hon Baroness (Pauline) Neville-Jones, former Minister for Security and Counter-Terrorism
  7. Sir Nick Harvey, former Member of Parliament and former Minister of State for the Armed Forces
  8. Lord (John) Kerr of Kinlochard, Independent member of the House of Lords
  9. Lord (Tom) King of Bridgwater, former Defence Secretary
  10. Lord (Mark) Malloch-Brown, President, Open Society Foundations, and former UN Deputy Secretary-General
  11. Madeleine Moon, former Member of Parliament and former President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly
  12. General the Lord (David) Ramsbotham, retired British Army officer, former Adjutant General and ADC General to Her Majesty the Queen
  13. The Rt Hon Jack Straw, former Foreign Secretary
  14. The Rt Hon Lord (David) Triesman, former Parliamentary Under Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and former General Secretary of the Labour Party