IF YOU are a Washington foreign policy analyst who supported the nuclear deal with Iran, then the result of the country’s elections last week was a resounding victory for reformists that proves the wisdom of President Obama’s engagement with the Islamic republic. If you opposed the deal, then the election merely entrenched conservatives and hard-liners. Such is the opacity of Iranian politics that neither of those dueling narratives could be entirely discounted following the release of the election results this week.
What seems relatively clear is that the voting for parliament, and for the Assembly of Experts that will choose the next Iranian supreme leader, showed, like most Iranian elections, that a large part of the public supports a liberalization of the regime. But as in the past, that popular sentiment is unlikely to bring about substantial change in the near future — in part because many of those elected are far less reform-minded than those who voted for them.
The basis for optimism lies in the relative success of a “list of hope” linked to President Hassan Rouhani, who led the regime to the nuclear deal. Those moderate candidates captured at least 85 seats in the 290-member Majlis, according to tallies by the Associated Press and Reuters, and all 30 of those contested in Tehran. More conservatives won election overall, but hard-liners linked to the faction of Holocaust-denying former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lost seats. Meanwhile, a Rouhani coalition attracted considerable support in the vote for the Assembly of Experts, including 15 of Tehran’s 16 places. That body will make the critical choice of a successor to hard-line Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields ultimate power in the Iranian system.
Claims of a reformist triumph, however, are overblown. Before the elections, an Iranian liberal coalition said that 99 percent of 3,000 pro-reform candidates had been disqualified by a hard-line clerical council. Most of those in Mr. Rouhani’s coalition are, like him, moderate conservatives, meaning they favor economic reforms and greater Western investment, but not liberalization of the political system or a moderation of Iran’s aspiration to become the hegemon of the Middle East. True Iranian religious and political reformers, like those who joined the 2009 Green Movement, are in jail or exile, or were banned from the ballot.
At best, the elections will allow Mr. Rouhani to press ahead with his economic agenda: He is intent on improving the economy before the next presidential election, in 2017. More foreign investment and higher living standards for Iranians could, over time, increase pressure for moderation of the regime’s domestic and foreign policies; that, anyway, is the theory embraced by Mr. Obama.
For now, Iran can be expected to continue the course it has been pursuing in the months since the nuclear deal was struck: waging proxy wars against the United States and its allies around the Middle East, using its unfrozen reserves to buy weapons, and defying non-nuclear limits — such as by testing long-range missiles. The elections won’t make the regime more pliable, and they won’t change the need for a U.S. counter to its aggressions. They shouldn’t provide an excuse for the Obama administration to tolerate Tehran’s provocations.