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What Iran’s parliamentary elections mean for Iran and dialogue with the United States

Hardliners will now have to share responsibility for Iran's problems.

Analysis | Middle East

As was widely expected, hardliners won Iran’s parliamentary elections by a wide margin, largely because reformist and moderate candidates were disqualified from running. However, the hardliners’ significant victory was not as sweet as they might have expected because the turnout at just a little over 42 percent was the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic. In Tehran, turnout was as low as 26 percent. This lack of enthusiasm means that the hardliners did not receive a resounding mandate. It also means winning the presidential election in May 2021 is still an uncertainty.

Why Hardliners Won

In addition to a lack of reformist and moderate candidates to choose from, of the many other factors contributing to the hardliners’ victory, among them was Iranians’ growing disenchantment with elections in general as the best route to reform. Those old enough remembered how Mohammad Khatami with a resounding victory in the 1997 presidential elections failed to implement reforms. Current President Hassan Rouhani, too, achieved a clear victory in 2013 and again was reelected in 2017. But he, too, has been stymied in his reform efforts.

Throughout the last two decades, other factors have also contributed to favorable outcomes for hardliners in both parliamentary and presidential elections, including the government’s economic performance and foreign policy setbacks. In Khatami’s case, the U.S. policy of punishing Iran after it helped the successful transition in Afghanistan in 2001, and President George W. Bush including Iran in the Axis of Evil, greatly contributed to conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning the 2005 presidential election. Then, the hardliners accused Khatami of having pursued what they called a concessionary foreign policy, giving away levers of influence without getting anything in exchange.

In last week’s parliamentary elections, too, anger over the failure of Rouhani’s policy of compromising on the nuclear issue, by agreeing to the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), without reaping the economic benefits contributed to hardliner gains, regardless of whether Rouhani was at fault for Donanld Trump’s unprovoked and unilateral decision to withdraw from the agreement and reimpose sanctions.

Trump’s ensuing “maximum pressure” campaign convinced hardliners more than ever that Iran must look to its own resources for survival and development, and that whatever Iranian governments do and whatever concessions they make, the U.S. will not relent in its hostility. Because the reformists and the moderates were in charge when Iran agreed to the JCPOA and also when the U.S. withdrew from it, they paid the price of hardliners’ rage. The reformers, especially those who negotiated the JCPOA, were seen as having been duped by the Americans.

Hardliners Must Face Realities

For the past two years, hardliners have blamed Rouhani and his cabinet for all of Iran’s troubles, going as far as asking for his resignation. They also have relentlessly attacked Foreign Minister Javad Zarif because he negotiated the JCPOA. Meanwhile, hardliners have harshly criticized Rouhani’s policy of opening to the outside world and easing cultural and political restrictions. They have  argued that relying on outsiders would not solve Iran’s economic and other woes, and instead have called for a so-called resistance economy and revolutionary management.

Clearly there is a lot that Iran can do on its own provided it curbs corruption, improves management, and uses national resources more efficiently. However, to develop and improve its people’s living conditions, Iran will need technology and capital. With U.S. sanctions and the possibility of the reimposition of international sanctions, Iran cannot hope to get any of what it needs. Even Iran’s so-called allies, like Russia and China, are not helping.

For example, Iran is desperate for investments in its oil industry but Russia just recently announced that it was investing in Iraq. And both China and Russia fear sanction by the West if they do business in Iran.

Once in control of the parliament with Rouhani being essentially a caretaker president until the next presidential election, if there is one, hardliners — who have described the most important duty of the forthcoming parliament as that of improving economy and people’s living standards — will be answerable to the people for their performance. If they fail, they will not be able to blame Rouhani alone.

Hardliners will soon realize that they cannot implement their agenda under sanctions, especially if conditions worsen under the economic impact of the Corona virus. Thus, they will face the same choice as the previous governments: either be flexible and change their foreign policy priorities and implement domestic reforms or face worsening decline and economic and political woes.

Implications for U.S.-Iran Relations

One key variable is whether Iran decides to talk directly to the United States. Such a decision is definitely risky, especially in light of the experience with the JCPOA. But this is a risk that Iran must take. Should such talks take place, the hardliners would be in a better position to make sure that no one opposes it as many disapproved of the JCPOA. The hardliners are not suspect of being closet pro-Westerners and they believe that their revolutionary credentials are unmatched. Let’s not forget that President Ahmadinejad was willing to make a deal on the nuclear issue but was rebuffed by the U.S. — an understandable outcome given his fiery rhetoric on sensitive issues. Nevertheless, it prolonged the nuclear standoff and led to the current situation.

Moreover, hardliners would love a deal with the U.S., thereby showing that they are the only ones capable of governing Iran successfully. Let’s not forget that hardline-reformist-moderate split is not all about ideology, but also power and its perks. If a deal could strengthen their power, the hardliners would go for it. But for such a deal to be possible, American hardliners, too, must come to see their interest better served by a deal with Iran and thus be prepared to  offer it some incentives to make an agreement possible. The worst thing would be to conclude that a hardline victory means that no U.S.-Iran talks are possible and thus persist in extreme pressure policy with all the risks for conflict that it entails.

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