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The Success of “Reformists” in Iran Does not Represent the Defeat of Ultraconservatives

Assembly of Experts' latest meeting. Photo: twitter, @khamenei_ir

A clash between the élites in Iran could lead to new public demonstrations

After having passed unscathed through the cutting of candidatures made by the Guardian Council, the first problem that the — few — reformist candidates remaining in the race had to face, helped by the Rohani-Rafsanjani duo, was convincing the electorate not to neglect the voting booths on February 26. In fact, the historically low turnout, driven by the desire to delegitimize the regime of the ayatollahs, played into the favor of the most radical part of the Iranian political landscape. This time, however, the elections for the renewal of the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts, saw the participation of more than thirty million Iranians, equal to 62 percent of eligible voters. The figure is only slightly lower than that of the parliamentary elections of 2012 (63 percent) but higher than the 55 percent recorded in 2008, as reported in the data of the Iran Data Portal.



The Affirmation of the “List of Hope”


The so-called “List of Hope,” a coalition that reunites moderates, pragmatic conservatives and some reformists, headed by the President of the Republic Hassan Rohani and by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, achieved good results, in particular in the district of Tehran, where it won all of the seats up for grabs for the Assembly of Experts. The results were less positive in the peripheral areas of the country, even though “the difference in electoral orientation between urban and rural areas is less pronounced than in previous years,” as Pejman Abdolmohammadi, researcher at the London School of Economics, told Oasis.



The Current Composition of the Assembly of Experts


Surprisingly, the new Assembly of Experts, the body with the power to remove and elect the Supreme Leader, will not include outgoing president Mohammad Yazdi and Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, among the most important sponsors of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Supreme Leader himself, Abdolmohammadi said, expressed his bitterness for the exclusion of these two ayatollahs, prominent members of the ultraconservative front. But it would be rash to claim that the elections marked a victory for the reformists: first of all, the majority of them could not participate in the electoral race, and furthermore because “many lesser-known ultraconservative ayatollahs were able to obtain a seat.” The “List of Hope” itself, which some western media have labeled as "moderate and reformist,” features candidates that have little in common with the reformist political movement led by former president Mohammad Khatami. This goes to show how essential it is to not read the results of the recent elections through the lens of the West’s political competition, where alliances are well defined around political parties with, at least in theory, clear leanings. To the contrary, in Iran the distinctions are more blurry, often they are along important family ties and politicians can switch from one alliance to another (for example, the path of former president Rafsanjani, who passed through the different phases of the Iranian Republic always managing to occupy prominent positions).



The Defense of the Traditional Shiite Clergy


Taking even the election results with caution, according to Abdolmohammadi, “these elections, which were conducted without major fraud, confirmed the tendency of the Iranian electorate to vote for the ‘lesser evil,’ moving towards the center of the political arena.” Furthermore, the recent electoral result shows that the decision of the Islamic Republic of Iran to take on “a more rational and pragmatic political orientation,” which passes through an “attempt, albeit a bit late, by the traditional Shiite clergy to oppose the overwhelming power of the sectors linked to the pasdaran (the Guardians of the Revolution).” At the same time however, the result of the elections for the Parliament and Assembly of Experts and minus the aforementioned prominent exclusions, cannot be considered a defeat for Khamenei. Firstly, the Supreme Leader welcomed the 62 percent voter turnout as a re-legitimization of the regime, and secondly, as Abdolmohammadi said, these results allow him to affirm that the elections in 2009 and 2005 were also “clean,” only blaming the conduct of those defeated, as can be seen from the following tweet






The Nomination of Ebrahim Raeisi


The “hybrid Iranian system constantly creates lookalikes,” says Abdolmohammadi, and allows the Supreme Leader and the conservative establishment to counterbalance the electoral debacle of some of its members. It is exemplary, in this regard, the nomination of Ebrahim Raeisi, close to Khamenei, the head of the powerful and rich Astan Quds Razavi foundation that manages the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, the hometown of the current Leader. According to Abdolmohammadi, the appointment of Raeisi in the place of the late Vaez-Tabasi, close to the pragmatists, should be read as an attempt by Khamenei to bring the foundation on the side of the segment of the Clergy, which is closely tied to the Revolutionary Guard. The appointment, capable of influencing the selection of the next Supreme Leader, shows “that the games for the long-awaited succession of Khamenei, go far beyond the election of the Assembly of Experts,” says Abdolmohammadi.



The Space for New Protests


What is certain is that “the more the pragmatists and the moderates force the hand in an attempt to reform the system, the more the pasdaran will be aggressive,” continuing to demonstrate the alternation of cycles of opening and closing that characterize Iranian political life. “A clash of elites” is taking place in Iran according to Abolmohammadi, that “could recreate the necessary space for new public protests in the span of at least five years.”



[twitter: @fontana_claudio]