Iran’s elections: A test of Obama’s nuclear deal

Will President Obama’s gamble that the Iranian nuclear deal will make the Middle East safer pay off? Elections will be a key test, and the first ones — the Iranian elections — start Friday.

One of Obama’s responses to critics who said the United States gave up too much to achieve the Iranian nuclear deal was that it could allow Iran to “fully rejoin the community of nations.” But will it? If projections for Iranian national elections are any indication, the answer may be no.

On February 26, Iranian voters will elect new members to both its Parliament and the Assembly of Experts — a deliberative body made up of 88 theologians. The problems start with the fact that the regime disqualified roughly half of the candidates who applied to run in the parliamentary elections, and reformist candidates were strongly represented among the disqualifications.

The resulting Parliament could be just as conservative as the current one, and certainly no more amenable to President Hassan Rouhani’s vision for an Iranian economy more open to the rest of the world.

Signs of elections everywhere in Tehran
Signs of elections everywhere in Tehran

The Assembly of Experts is anticipated to remain solidly conservative. This could have important ramifications for the selection of the Assembly’s new chairman and its Board of Governors. The pre-election disqualifications prevent many of the moderate or reformist-minded candidates most aligned with Rouhani’s vision for greater integration with the world from running.

The races in Tehran will be the most competitive, with that district still sporting candidates open to limited economic and social reform. These are the few contests to watch to see how conservative the Assembly could swing.

Any fundamental changes in the Iranian regime’s ideology, domestic agenda or foreign policies are unlikely to occur under this Supreme Leader. Obama claims to understand this. At most, we will see more tactical shifts to de-escalate with the West for specific strategic goals, as witnessed during recent negotiations with the United States to secure relief from nuclear-related sanctions.

Parliament’s weight in Iran’s government is difficult to measure. On the one hand, the body controls the state budget and confirms government ministers. On the other, Parliament at times seems little more than a venue for the regime’s various factions to criticize the sitting government, and for the more extreme elements of Iran’s political spectrum to let off steam. The body is at best a lagging indicator of how far the real powers that be — the Supreme Leader and the inner circle around him — will allow the Iranian political system to evolve.

More critically, the Assembly of Experts is tasked with selecting Iran’s next supreme leader. The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was hospitalized in September 2014, probably for surgery related to prostate cancer. Some initial reports hypothesized that his condition might be curable, but more recently there has been speculation about who will replace him after unconfirmed reports that his illness is getting worse. The contradictory and hazy nature of the reports only highlights the challenge in understanding the Iranian regime.

The managed evolution of Iran’s political and clerical classes makes it unclear whether the Assembly’s “selection” of the next supreme leader will occur in the private voting style of a papal conclave, or whether it will be simply a rubber stamp of a candidate whose selection is coordinated by the regime’s power centers.

The long game is shaping what happens after Khamenei’s death. Obama has implied that he hopes bringing Iran back into the international fold will spur positive internal political change and encourage Tehran to become a more responsible player in the region. As with Cuba, engagement rather than isolation is seen as the most powerful weapon against rogue states. These are the tenets of the Obama doctrine for regime change.

The Supreme Leader wants none of this. Khamenei is very conscious that reintegration with the global economy risks inviting a flood of Western ideas that could further erode the political elites’ commitment to Iran’s revolutionary ideals.

In response to sanctions relief, Khamenei has backed an anti-foreign influence campaign marked by increased political arrests and executions, as well as provocative missile launches and military drills. These are not signs of a new era of openness or cooperation with Iran.

Maybe Obama is right, and engagement will eventually bring moderation in Tehran’s policies. Or perhaps Khamenei and his fellow elites are savvy enough to use the financial resources and diplomatic capital accrued by the nuclear deal to ensure that the Islamic Republic changes very little.

The upcoming elections will not answer all these questions, but Friday is the first test of which legacy will last longer: Obama’s or Khamenei’s.

J. Matthew McInnis is a resident fellow and Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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