Voters in the Islamic Republic of Iran turned out en masse Feb. 26 to elect representatives for parliament and the 88-member Assembly of Experts tasked with appointing the country’s next supreme leader. While these elections, considered a referendum on President Hassan Rouhani’s policies of political and economic openness, hinted at transformative change, enthusiasm must be weighed against Iran’s regionally destabilizing military assertiveness.
Results, which are contested by various media sources, appeared to illustrate a conclusive victory for reformists. Particularly, the List of Hope, an alignment of Iranian liberals, centrists and moderates, won 85 seats in the legislative assembly. Combined with the 73 held by moderate conservatives, Rouhani’s coalition now possesses the majority necessary to pass legislation in the 290-member body. In contrast, the “Principalist” hardliner camp won only 68 seats, down from 112.
While these figures do not reflect substantive shifts in the Iranian political environment, an altered ideological complexion will allow Rouhani more leeway in pursuing domestic and foreign initiatives. His administration seeks greater market liberalization and regulatory reform as vehicles to increased foreign investment and new avenues of diplomatic cooperation with the West. While hostility to change will certainly remain, greater parliamentary backing will markedly augment Rouhani’s ability to implement previously inconceivable policies
The List of Hope additionally triumphed in elections for the Assembly of Experts, winning 20 seats, including all 16 allocated to the municipality of Tehran. Moderates and reformists now possess a majority of 52 seats in the elite body, a figure that skyrocketed upward from 20 in the previous cycle. Ideological shifts in the assembly could impact Iranian governance more than parliamentary developments. If the 76-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who recently underwent prostate surgery, vacates office in the near future, the appointment of a more moderate supreme leader could usher in a permanent Iranian political orientation favoring liberalization and democratization.
The elections additionally served as a barometer for public opinion on the P5+1 nuclear agreement. The accord was a wedge issue that divided conservatives, prompting 73 traditionalist assemblymen to abandon the bloc in favor of Rouhani’s coalition. While other domestic factors, including frustrations with governmental corruption and inefficiency, played a role in the upsurge of moderate support, the List of Hope victories reflect a popular desire for the furtherance of Rouhani’s most significant initiative to date.
However, the elections are unlikely to alter Iran’s most belligerent foreign policies. Indeed, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp Qods Force, not Rouhani, is responsible for orchestrating military operations in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen that perpetuate Iran’s cold war with Saudi Arabia.
The only Iranian politician possessing the clout to influence the traditionally conservative and insular IRGC is the anti-Western Khamenei himself. While he did condone the nuclear agreement, Khamenei also called on the Iranian people to elect a legislature that would “stand up to world powers,” a veiled reference to the United States, and characterized American attitudes toward Iran as “open hostility.”
Iranian behavior reflects ambitions of hegemonic expansionism rather than reconciliation with the global community. On March 7, 222 Iranian lawmakers condemned a Gulf Cooperation Council decision to label Lebanese militant group Hezbollah a terrorist organization, lauding the regional proxy as a “symbol of resistance against the Zionist regime.” Meanwhile, a senior Iranian official suggested that the IRGC could escalate its involvement in Yemen by deploying advisers to assist the Houthis in their struggle against the Saudi-backed government. Most conspicuously, Iran continues to provide support to the embattled Assad regime in Syria.
Iranian military assertiveness is most clearly demonstrated by its latest ballistic missile launch. On March 8, the IRGC test-fired several medium-range Qiam-1 missiles, which have a range up to 2000 kilometers and can carry a nuclear warhead. This launch came after Washington sanctioned institutions related to the Iranian missile program over Tehran’s test of the Emad rocket in October 2015. Both violate U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which demands Iran refrain from “any activity” relating to ballistic missile development.
The United States must adopt a strategy of cautiously optimistic engagement with Iran as a political partner while concurrently condemning its destabilizing conduct. Rouhani should not be made to pay the price for IRGC incitements, as the United States has a vested interest in sustaining his moderate governing coalition. Nevertheless, violating U.N. resolutions or propagating proxy warfare must beget harsh responses, for signs of weakness or appeasement will be taken by Tehran as permission to continue, if not expand, the scope of its operations.
Adopting a firm stance against IRGC flaunting of international law while cooperating with the Rouhani administration will be difficult for American legislators. Policymakers must comprehend the nuance of the Iranian power structure, particularly the sluggish rate of political transformation in an autocratic theocracy, if there is to be hope for the recent elections to translate into changes benefitting the United States.
Matt Gregory is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Sense of the Middle East appears every other Friday.