The Legatum Institute’s Anne Applebaum moderated a discussion with experts Sanam Vakil, lecturer in Middle East Studies, John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna (Italy); Saeed Barzin, Iran analyst, BBC Persian Service and the BBC Monitoring Service; Hossein Bastani, political analyst and producer at BBC Persian Service and Hossein Rassam, Director, Rastah Ideologistics.

The panellists agreed that the elections were not free and fair. The vetting process by the hardliners disqualified many of the reformist candidates in advance, and others had their qualifications disputed up until the last minute, which significantly diminished their chances of success in smaller cities.

The regime sought the legitimacy granted by higher voter participation, but some argue the opposite—that the high turnout was a tactical vote aimed at omitting the main conservatives from both the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) and the Assembly of Experts.

The results of the election have essentially led to a tripartite division in the Majlis between hardliners, independents and reformists. The reformist camp actually consists of a wide coalition of reformists, moderates and some conservatives, and this should be seen as an impressive victory for them because the independents will look to them for financial largesse and a tacit alliance is likely to be formed. As a result, this is the first time in 12 years that pro-Government reformists will have some control over the Majlis.

These reformists favour step by step changes. To avoid confusion, a more fruitful way to understand the divisions in the Iranian parliament could be to label them as “pro-“ or “anti-“ Rouhani’s government and, in particular the nuclear deal. Indeed, support for the nuclear deal was the key reason many Iranians voted for Rouhani’s faction. Because several leading reformists were disqualified before the elections, many of the candidates on Rouhani’s list were relatively anonymous. As a result, the election became more of a litmus test for Rouhani’s leadership thus far.

On the face of it, Rouhani passed decisively. That said, there has been a general shift to the right in Iranian politics. Those who are now seen as reformists were the very same who supported right-leaning Rafsanjani a decade ago. Indeed, the new centre of Iranian politics is occupied by Ali Larijani, the Speaker of Parliament, who is no leftist reformer. Analysts overlook the success of the conservative hardliners at their peril. While Tehran voted overwhelmingly in favour of Rouhani’s government, in the city of Karaj, just 12 miles west of Tehran, the reformist list lost decisively.

Nevertheless, President Rouhani will see the election results as a validation of his foreign policy. In line with his “Economic Diplomacy”, which prioritises bringing prosperity to ordinary Iranians, Iran is actively building relationships with both the West and the East and it is trying to promote itself as “open for business”, despite slow progress in tackling corruption and visa delays.

However, this apparent “opening up” has met opposition by those who fear that increased trade links will ultimately lead to long-term political change. Following the Green Movement of 2009, Ayatollah Khamanei and the Revolutionary Guards are said to be worried about this potential political change. Given their power, Iranian foreign policy is likely to become somewhat schizophrenic in the immediate future.

This event was hosted in association with Rastah Idealogistics.

Sharan Tabari, Legatum Fellow and journalist gave opening remarks.

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About the Speakers

Sanam Vakil is a lecturer in Middle East Studies at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy. She has worked on civil society development in Iran, has served as a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Iran Project, and has consulted for the World Bank Group’s Middle East and North Africa division. Dr Vakil is also the author of Action and Reaction: Women and Politics in Iran.  

Saeed Barzin is an independent journalist and political analyst specialising in Iranian affairs. He is a regular contributor to BBC Persian television and radio, BBC World Service and UK national radios. Over the past 20 years, he has written for a number of learned journals and has published several books. His Political Biography of Mehdi Bazargan was among the bestselling books in Iran. 

Hossein Bastani is a political analyst at the BBC Persian Service. He has published numerous analytical pieces on Iranian politics, especially on Iran’s political-security structure. Before leaving Iran in 2004, he was the Secretary General of the Association of Iranian Journalists (the sole nationwide union of Iranian journalists, which was banned by the government after the 2009 presidential election).

Hossein Rassam is an analyst and consultant focusing on political, social, and economic developments in Iran. Previously, he has worked for the British embassy in Tehran and then as a senior political adviser on Iran to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Since 2015, he has offered analysis and advice on Iran to governments, organisations, and companies.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.