Iran is holding a high-stakes parliamentary election Friday. In mid-January, the conservative Guardian Council surprised some observers with the mass disqualification of reformist candidates in Iran’s upcoming parliamentary elections. This institutional gambit was partially rescinded a few weeks later, after a new review of the qualifications of the candidates. While the disqualifications show that the conservatives still hold the reins of power in Iran’s political system and set the terms of the game, as the reversals signal, they cannot dictate the final results or eliminate competition.
With the successful negotiation of the nuclear agreement, the coalition that backed President Hassan Rouhani on the deal will begin to fragment as factional rivalries and infighting increase and once again shape political competition inside Iran. The electoral results, however, will not have a significant impact on the continued implementation of the nuclear agreement. Instead, the conservative establishment in Tehran seeks to maintain leverage over Rouhani on broader international developments as well as domestic matters. In particular, these elections will be more important in determining the future path of development Iran chooses and how economic reform will be undertaken by the Rouhani administration.
A less widely recognized aspect of these elections is what it reveals about the potential unraveling of Rouhani’s broad coalition alliance that brought him to power in 2013. Rouhani’s crowning achievement — the lifting of international sanctions linked to the nuclear agreement — creates serious challenges to his political base of authority and future strategy. While the deal bolstered Rouhani’s popularity and allows the government to recoup much needed funds to carry out its economic and development plans, the lifting of sanctions also divides and fragments the broad elite coalition, including significant sections of the conservatives, that had come to support him during the 2013 presidential elections and during the nuclear talks over the past two years.
Nonetheless, in the short term, the elections will not likely result in weakening Rouhani, but it will strengthen his core supporters in parliament. While the initial momentum — which propelled Rouhani into the presidency — has lessened, he nonetheless has garnered popularity by successfully negotiating the nuclear agreement and offering the Iranian people better economic futures. But over the longer term, he needs to show economic gains or risk a backlash from disappointed voters.
Rouhani built a political coalition spanning across the reformists, moderates and the pragmatic elements within the conservatives. Sanctions served as the glue holding Rouhani’s coalition together, since its disparate factions could all agree on the urgency to end sanctions. What is more, sanctions drove a wedge within the conservative elite, exacerbating divisions between those favoring a more confrontational approach, represented by individuals like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and lead nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, and those favoring engagement to end the nuclear stalemate, such as the Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and the foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader, Ali Akbar Velayati. Sanctions thus contributed to a recalibration of political forces within the Iranian political system so critical for Rouhani’s election to power, as key segments of the conservative factions shifted towards Rouhani.
The lifting of sanctions has rendered the raison d’être behind Rouhani’s coalition irrelevant. As a result, submerged divergences over political, economic and cultural policies will become increasingly pronounced within the corridors of power in Tehran. Rouhani is now caught in a tug of war between segments of the conservative and reformist factions. While Rouhani is expected to show his support for the reformists who helped vote him into power, and who will be critical for his reelection campaign in 2017, he needs the conservatives to undertake a gradual approach to political and economic reform and to secure his own political survival. The closer he moves towards the reformists, the more he risks alienating the conservatives who will look to undermine his power and, if necessary, turn to a more suitable candidate and faction to support their interests.
The reversal of the disqualifications of reformist candidates accentuates Rouhani’s dilemma as the factional scene becomes more polarized and less congenial for attempts to bridge the differences between the various power centers. With more like-minded moderate and reformist candidates now eligible to run after their reinstatement by the Guardian Council, Rouhani’s moderate supporters have chosen to issue a joint list of candidates with the reformists for Tehran and other major cities. On the other hand, the different shades and groupings of the conservative forces have decided to present a unified front under the Principlist Coalition Council.
This puts Rouhani in a bind. Rouhani is betting that his alliance with the reformists will give him a stronger hand against the conservatives in the parliament — and perhaps hoping to garner the reformist vote in the 2017 presidential elections. However, such a strategy risks alienating both political groups. A polarized electoral map reduces the likelihood of Rouhani being able to attract conservative voters as he did before. It will also make Rouhani’s task of coalition building more difficult balancing the reformists and conservatives in the next parliament — especially if the reformists win an important number of seats. If he goes all in for the reformists, Rouhani risks losing the backing of conservatives on his economic and development plans.
All eyes will be on Iran this Friday as the elections will be the first after the implementation of the nuclear agreement (the JCPOA). The results will provide an important barometer of Iranian opinion of the deal and of popular satisfaction regarding the Rouhani administration’s policies thus far. Just as importantly, the consensus which brought Rouhani to power has now come to an end — how these factional actors choose to realign themselves as a result of the elections will shape the relative balance of power domestically in Iran as well as the future direction of the country.
Payam Mohseni is director of the Iran Project and a fellow of Iran Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. He is also a lecturer on government in the department of government at Harvard University and co-chair of the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe Study Group at Harvard’s Center for European Studies.