Many in the West had hoped that the nuclear accord with Tehran would bolster the more pragmatic forces in Iranian politics that promoted it. Many in Iran, especially the country’s conservatives, feared exactly the same.
The conservatives, to limit the deal’s aftershocks and preserve their power, moved to disqualify as undesirable a great many candidates for parliament and the Assembly of Experts in the Feb. 26 elections. The disqualified candidates, a mix of political aspirants, include a significant number of politicians eager to reform the system.
Of more than 12,000 candidates who threw their hats and turbans into the parliamentary ring, nearly 58 percent were struck from the ballot in the first round of vetting by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council, the 12-member panel that vets Iran’s laws and candidates for office. A few dozen incumbent members of parliament were removed from the ballot, as well as the majority of reformist candidates. Similarly, 75 percent of the aspirants for the Assembly of Experts, a body likely to select the 77-year-old supreme leader’s successor, were barred. Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the system’s founder, was among the disqualified. As a result, in six out of 31 provinces, there will actually be no contest because the number of approved candidates equals allocated seats.
The increasingly politicized vetting process denies the Iranian people the opportunity to choose their representatives from a diverse, representative pool. President Hassan Rouhani, clearly dismayed by the number of disqualifications, managed to convince the Guardian Council to reinstate 1,500 of the rejected parliamentary candidates, which brought the disqualification rate down to 49 percent. But the roster of approved contenders still leaves the odds of upsetting the balance of power at a minimum. Appeals of the assembly’s rejected aspirants were to no avail.
It would be easy now for the West to dismiss the impending Iranian elections as unfair, and loudly deplore the expulsion of reputed moderates. A derisive reaction in Western capitals, however, could do more harm than good.
First, barring reformists is not the same as barring all pragmatists. Scores of centrists aligned with Rouhani have been approved to run. There is still a chance that the parliamentary pendulum could swing toward the center of the political spectrum and result in a legislature friendlier to the president than the current one. This is why, despite their exclusion, reformists are encouraging the electorate to turn out at the polls. They do not want the Iranian public to waste any opportunity to elect centrists and side-line hardliners.
Second, neither Western denunciations nor endorsements can affect the electoral results in a constructive fashion. Trying to push Iran in a more “moderate” direction could backfire, given Iranian conservatives’ already strident alarm and fear that the ulterior motive for the nuclear deal was to undermine the Islamic Republic. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has warned of infiltration. “The goal of the enemy’s soft war against us,” he cautioned in a recent speech, “is to transform the nature of the Islamic Republic, even if its façade remains untouched.”
Third, the West’s track record in playing the game of Iranian politics is unimpressive. In the past three decades, whomever Western leaders championed as a “moderate,” even if only rhetorically, was eventually side-lined. The list includes liberal Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan in the 1980s, pragmatist President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 1990s and reformist President Mohammad Khatami in the 2000s.
The West must exercise caution, especially at such a sensitive time in Iran’s electoral cycle. In March 2000, President Bill Clinton’s administration took the unprecedented step, as part of an effort to help repair relations, of admitting Washington’s role in the 1953 coup that overthrew a popular Iranian prime minister. But at the same time, the move expressed a preference for Iran’s elected over its unelected leaders, and this closed the door on an opportunity for a thaw in relations at an opportune moment.
The lesson seems clear: Questioning the legitimacy of the Iranian political system, even obliquely, will neither usher in reforms nor win Western capitals any goodwill — either among ordinary Iranians or the country’s elites.
Just as important, the West’s continued policy of supporting pragmatists to temper Iran’s behaviour is misguided. The experience of the nuclear talks clearly demonstrates that no policy shift is possible without popular demand, the backing of the supreme leader and the support of conservatives more generally. Internal consensus, reached through a credible domestic process, is the only stable basis for progress in Iran.
Where the West can have strong impact is in trying to reverse the mutually hostile narratives arising from its decades of suspicion and enmity toward Tehran by fully implementing the nuclear accord. The West must create discrete and non-politicized channels to address other issues of concern or common interest and, eventually, push for a regional security architecture that takes account of Iranian, Arab and other legitimate interests.
Instead of taking sides in an internal Iranian debate that outsiders repeatedly have proven unable to manipulate successfully, the West should treat Iran as a unitary polity — even though it is anything but.
Emma Bonino is the former foreign minister of Italy. Javier Solana is the former European Union high representative for the common foreign and security policy. Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group’s senior Iran analyst.