The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iranians took part in elections. Guess what: Their votes mattered.

An Iranian voter shows her hand with numbers that signal support for reformists and moderate candidates as she fills out her ballot Feb. 26 at a polling station in Tehran. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

In Washington, the common line ahead of Iranian elections last Friday was that the vote didn't really matter.

Millions of Iranians were going to the ballot box to elect a new parliament as well the members of another body, a somewhat obscure clerical assembly that supervises the country's supreme leader. In both cases, observers argued, this exercise of democracy would be little more than window-dressing for a theocratic regime that jails dissidents and subdues dissent.

Myriad reformist candidates had been disqualified even before the election campaign had begun, the latest victims of a concerted effort by the Iran's conservative establishment in the past decade to decimate its opponents. To this day, many prominent champions of reform are either imprisoned or living in exile.

Yet as final results came in Tuesday, it appeared that the elections were a blow to the camp of hard-liners who still dominate many organs of the state, including the country's judiciary and armed forces. Moderate candidates allied with President Hassan Rouhani swept all 30 parliamentary seats from the capital, Tehran, and greatly expanded their footprint in the Majlis, or parliament. They also made significant gains in the Assembly of Experts, the body of 88 clerics that would be tasked with picking Iran's supreme leader in the event of the death of the current one, 76-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Supporters of Rouhani cheered on social media, exulting in the defeat of leading hard-line figures, including some who spoke vociferously against Iran's pact with world powers that curtailed its nuclear program.

That leaves Rouhani, who pinned his political fortunes on the passage of the deal, with an expanded though hardly dominant mandate, as the chart in the tweet below shows.

Power in the Islamic Republic still, of course, resides chiefly with Khamenei, but the regime is not as monolithic as critics make it out to be. Rouhani and his allies had to put up with a great deal of opposition over the past year from a parliament stacked with ultra-conservatives, also known as "principlists," who disapproved of Rouhani's overtures to the West. That may now lead to a changing of tone.

"We all know that the Iranian elections will change nothing immediately, but we also know that these elections are the closest that the Iranian public can come to shaping the country's future," writes the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo.

Iran does not have real political parties, but "lists" of like-minded candidates who campaigned together. Rouhani's camp included a motley mix of erstwhile political rivals who were largely opposed to the radicalism of Iran's hard-liners, noted Shervin Malekzadeh, a visiting associate professor at Swarthmore College.

"Blocked from the ballot and forced to play the political game on an uneven playing field, reformists were left with little choice ... but to form alliances across the ideological divide as a way to overcome formal barriers to participation," Malekzadeh wrote for The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog.

"Iran, in other words, is becoming more democratic in spite of itself," he added, an ironic outcome given the lengths to which the country's Guardian Council went to limit the options of candidates. A huge mobilization effort, heavily based on social media, brought out millions of voters.

"The stunning setback of the hard-liners in the elections is precisely why they opposed the Iran nuclear deal," wrote Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, in an email. "They knew that if successful, the Rouhani faction would benefit electorally from the significant achievement of resolving the nuclear issue and reducing tensions with United States. These benefits would not just be limited to the parliamentary elections, but could establish a new balance of power in Iran’s internal politics with significant long-term repercussions."

Experts believe that Rouhani may have an easier time implementing economic reforms as well as conducting diplomacy. Iran's conspicuous role in the Middle East sees its proxies and own fighters involved in conflicts across the region, particularly in Syria. Security policy, controlled largely by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, probably won't change. But there's a chance of a thaw with the Persian Gulf Arab states; ties between Iran and regional rival Saudi Arabia reached something of a nadir last year.

"Last Friday’s vote of confidence in the Rouhani administration, combined with parliament’s shift to the center, will allow the government to pursue its policy of engagement with its Gulf Arab neighbors," write academics Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai. "While the moderates may differ on how far this should go, all agree that the status quo is not sustainable."

Skeptics will likely want to see far greater change, including meaningful political reforms and the release of political prisoners. That, again, may not come to pass anytime soon.

But the election, argues Parsi, is still a clear demonstration that people power has effects in Iran.

"[The skeptics] didn’t misread the many flaws in the Iranian political system. Those flaws are there," he said. "They committed a much bigger mistake. They misread the strength of the Iranian society and the sophistication of the Iranian electorate, who once again have shown that they have the maturity and wisdom to change their society peacefully from within, without any support or interference from the outside."