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Domestic and International Impacts

Will Iran’s policies change following the recent elections?

11 April 2016

Domestic and International Impacts

The Iranian regime seems strong and immune at home despite the security turbulences in neighboring countries. This coherence, so to speak, is due to several factors, including security strategies pursued by the regime and the presence of institutions that play an influential role in maintaining the regime’s security and stability, primarily the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In light of developments that emerged as a result of the recent parliamentary elections, and the rise of Reformists versus Conservatives, the projected impact of these elections on Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East remains weak, given the many challenges facing Tehran in the region.

The above conclusion represents the core findings of a workshop held by Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS). On April 11, 2016, FARAS hosted Mohammed Abbas Naji, editor of the monthly journal, Mukhtarat Irania, published by Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies, and Rania Makram, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center.

Why does the Iranian regime seem so strong?

Located in an unstable region, Iran is witnessing many turbulences and conflicts as all countries in its immediate vicinity have faced either internal or external conflicts, crises or wars. That means Iran is a logical candidate to face security disturbances and terrorist incidents similar to other countries in the region, a matter fully recognized by its security agencies and the Iranian regime in general.

Nevertheless, the Iranian regime seems immune at home against these upheavals, due to a number of strengths:

  • Terrorism deterrence strategy, where the Iranian officials are keen on reiterating, on more than one occasion that their country pursues a strategy of "effective deterrence" at home and abroad, whereby terrorist operations are aborted and terrorist cells dismantled before achieving their plans. Iran acquired considerable experience in domestic security control against external intrusion, thanks to the regime’s reliance for its survival on the huge military and security apparatus, which runs deep in the key structures of governance and economy, in addition to the continuous development of the country's security strategy.
  • The role of key actors in the Iranian regime hierarchy, particularly the Revolutionary Guard and its affiliated institutions, where they still play a vital role in maintaining the security and stability of the regime in Tehran.
  • The "cultural security" strategy that plays a prominent role in protecting the Iranian identity against foreign attempts to influence the beliefs of Iranians. Besides the Iranian regime’s commitment to its traditional security doctrine, developed in the wake of the Islamic Revolution, and its belief in its importance, the regime has created its own model of the so-called "cultural security", through its constant sloganeering that perpetuates hatred for the West which embodies the “external enemy”. These are some of the mechanisms intended to strengthen the regime at home and rally around it, as well as focusing on a national objective represented in Iran's nuclear program, plus imposing strict controls on aspects of opening up to the West in particular, and all that would influence the Persian identity in general. Furthermore, the Iranian regime tightens its grip on the media, both traditional and modern, blocks social networks, imposes a cultural barrier that would reduce the chances of influencing the beliefs of the Iranian people.
  • The patronage role of many formal and informal institutions, where these institutions took upon themselves to help the needy and the poor, providing help to seniors and retirees, which appeals to this demographic in Iranian society. The increase of poverty and destitution have helped increase the role of these pro-regime institutions. Perhaps the Revolutionary Guards is one of the most important institutions in this regard, where it has managed to establish its presence in many areas of the political, social and economic life. 

Importance of the Iranian parliamentary elections

Regarding the domestic situation in Iran, participants discussed the events and the results of the second round of parliamentary elections held on 29 April, where candidates vied for 69 seats in a 290-strong parliament.

Reformist and moderate candidates who support President Hassan Rouhani achieved good results in these elections. The result is that they are no longer under the control of the conservatives, and the two main rival movements in the Iranian political arena have now almost equal representation in Parliament. 

This election is important due to the following:

  • It is the first elections after reaching the July 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers, and the gradual lifting of sanctions starting in mid-January 2016. Thus, the nuclear deal turned into a political struggle in Tehran, a controversial issue among political parties amid disagreement about the feasibility of this nuclear agreement and its impact on Iran’s interests. Voting results in the parliamentary elections reflected support to the nuclear deal concluded by the government of President Rouhani with the international powers in return for lifting the economic sanctions on Iran.
  • The elections coincide with an increasing debate inside Iran on the successor of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, as no one currently knows who will succeed the current leader Ali Khamenei. The regime may be deliberately doing this because highlighting potential succession of candidates will generate another conflict within the country. In addition, the Iranian Parliament elections are associated with electing the Assembly of Experts. Which means that the new Assembly of Experts, which entails an eight-year term, is the one to determine the next leader, in light of the deteriorating health of Ali Khamenei. This assembly is composed of clerics only, and its candidates are subject to tests in Islamic jurisprudence.

Notes on the recent elections

The recent Iranian Parliamentary elections revealed a number of points, most important are the following:

  • Recent election results demonstrated a rule: The Iranian Parliament comes similar to the country's President, meaning that parliament reflects the president’s orientations. Under Mohammad Khatami, the majority were reformists. With Ahmadinejad in power, the majority were conservatives. Since Rouhani has assumed power in 2013, the reformists have achieved outstanding and satisfactory results in recent parliamentary elections.
  • The reformists have a weight in the new session of the Iranian Parliament so that they will have an influence on various legislations and laws.
  • The Independents have gained a role too, becoming the dark horse that tips the balance in favor of reformists or conservatives in the Iranian Parliament. And with the passing of time, features of power balances within this Parliament will materialize.
  • The result of the elections was similar to that of a referendum on the nuclear deal with the P5+1 group, illustrating that there is a general satisfaction for this agreement. Out of the 80 candidates that opposed the nuclear agreement, only 12 succeeded.
  • The conflict between Parliament and the Guardian Council of the Constitution may escalate, the latter being an unelected institution controlled by the radical conservatives, that consists of 12 members; whereby the Supreme Leader appoints six jurists. The remaining six members are legal experts appointed by the Parliament after being nominated by the Head of the Judiciary Authority.
  • The Guardian Council is the most important Council among state institutions, being a supervisory institution in charge of interpreting the Constitution, vetting laws passed by the Parliament, as well as checking the eligibility of candidates for the presidency. Therefore, when the Parliament sends legislations for the President of the Republic to approve, the Guardian Council has the right to object. 

Potential impacts of the Iranian election

It could be said that Iran's recent parliamentary elections will not have a significant impact on Tehran's foreign policy, due to:

  • Any potential change in the Iranian policy will depend on the main decision- making centers in Tehran (Supreme Leader, the Revolutionary Guard) since the nuclear agreement has only passed after the President took a green light from the Supreme Leader.
  • Prospects of changes in Iranian foreign policy are slim during the coming period, because Iran faces unprecedented regional challenges, primarily due to the policies adopted by major countries in the Middle East that saw a further deterioration of relations in the wake of Nimr al-Nimr’s execution, and Tehran’s support of terrorist organizations.

The above was also reflected in international organizations’ statements, such as the recent meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul (OIC). The OIC issued a statement condemning Iran's actions, violations and interventions in the internal affairs of various countries of the region, and its destabilization attempts.

There is also a relative calm surrounding the main issues in the region, which does not bode well for Iran. Among these, the Syrian conflict, where a political settlement, not consistent with the vision of Iran, could be reached between the major international powers. There are also the Kuwait peace talks, between the Yemeni Government and Houthis. In addition, the obstacles the United States are placing to decelerate the lifting of sanctions on Iran.