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Iran’s voters back nuclear deal and their president despite roadblocks

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves to media after casting his vote in Tehran, Iran, on Friday. Photo: Handout/AP Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot in Tehran, Iran, on Friday. Photo: Handout/AP
Nanjing Night Net

Ultraconservative Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who heads the powerful Guardian Council, Iran’s top electoral oversight body, was re-elected. Photo: AP/File

Vote heralds most crucial choice in 30 years

Washington: The Iranian parliament is not a repository of great power. Yet in terms of the signal sent to the country’s powerbrokers and to the world, the votes cast by millions at the weekend amounted to a political thunderclap – in going to the polls, Iranians didn’t get substantive change, but that they said they wanted change was substantive.

The ranks of the hardliners who controlled the national parliament were slashed dramatically – down from 112 to 68. It was reformists and so-called moderate-conservative factions that walked away with control – between them, they captured 158 seats in the 290-seat parliament, which included a clean sweep of all 30 seats representing the capital.

The elections – for the parliament and separately for Assembly of Experts, which appoints Iran’s Supreme Leader – were seen as a referendum on reformist President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in 2013; and on a deal that he championed, by which Tehran agreed to curtail its nuclear program in return for the lifting of Western economic sanctions.

Nearly every hardline candidate who voiced criticism of the nuclear deal was defeated.

In the 88-strong Assembly of Experts, the coalition of reformists and moderate conservatives that won out in the parliament captured almost two-thirds of the seats.

Rouhani will face less criticism in the new parliament and he will probably be more cordial to the West. But power in Iran continues to rest with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the religious and security establishment.

And while it is they who make the big decisions on foreign and economic, social and religious policy, the February 26 votes are an expression of the people’s will that might inform their decision-making in the face of calls by Rouhani for greater liberalisation.

Khamenei is an arch-critic of the US – and in his only public comment on the elections, he praised the 60-plus per cent voter turnout, not the outcome.

But despite his harsh rhetoric, some analysts insist that Khamenei is conscious of Iranian public opinion and that, at age 76 and in poor health, he is concerned about a legacy that would be greater than having merely preserved the Islamic Revolution – hence his support for the nuclear deal and the economic benefits it might bring.

Rouhani, on the other hand, faces re-election in 2017. And in pushing for reforms that might please voters, he runs the risk of a backlash from vested interests – be they the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which reputedly controls as much as two-thirds of the economy, or the religious hardliners who justify their own existence by insisting on conservative social policies.

“This election can be a turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic,” according to an editorial in the reformist newspaper Mardom-Salari. “The biggest achievement of this election is the return of reformists to the ruling system … so they won’t be called seditionists or infiltrators anymore.”

Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of the conservative, Khamenei-aligned Kayhan newspaper, claimed that the reformists were attempting to create “an illusion of victory”.

Quoted by Reuters, he said: “The structure of Iran’s ruling system is such that no political faction can change the main policies rooted in its core principles.”

In the circumstances of politics Iran-style, the election outcome was remarkable. Hardliners and revolution diehards used their grip on the levers of non-parliamentary power to thwart voices for change – thousands of reformist election candidates were disqualified by an unelected Guardian Council; activists were detained; opposition campaigns were ignored by powerful state media outlets; and rallies and other political events were curtailed.

But in a matter of days, what could be described as the more centrist forces on the very narrow and conservative Iranian political spectrum turned to social media and word of mouth to get Iranians to coalesce behind a slate of candidates, dubbed “the list of hope”, of whom they knew very little.

When the bulk of would-be reformist candidates were excluded, the reformists were obliged to fall back on little-known second and third-tier reformists and on a carefully selected crop of conservatives, variously described as “moderate”, “pragmatic” and “centrist”, who they believed would be prepared to work with them on some – if not all – issues.

Shervin Malekzadeh, a visiting professor at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, saw irony in the vote.

“Iran is becoming more democratic in spite of itself,” he wrote in The Washington Post.

“If the line against radicalism holds, as it already appears to have held … the story of these elections will be of how, in one of the great ironies of Iran’s post-revolutionary political development, the intransigence of the Guardian Council helped provide the necessary basis for the formation of a more tolerant and pluralist politics in Iran.”

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This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.