COMMENT: Iran’s new parliament provides hope but no certainty of change

COMMENT: Iran’s new parliament provides hope but no certainty of change
President Hassan Rouhani still faces enormous challenges to push through his economic agenda.
By Aleksandra Jarosiewicz in Warsaw May 18, 2016

Iran’s new parliament for the next four years will first convene on May 27. This follows an April 29 run-off parliamentary election that ended the election process to 290-member Majlis. The results showed a growing popularity for reformists over conservatives, not only in Teheran but also in the more remote areas of Iran. A closer look at its composition gives a hint on the future fate of the policy pursued so far by the pragmatic Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, though first impressions can be deceiving: he still faces enormous challenges to push through his economic agenda.

To any outside observer, Iranian politics paints a bizarre scene: the country has no traditional political party-based system and candidates can be supported by competing blocs running in an election. Moreover, once the parliament is elected alliances can swiftly change, as they are based on individual choices of the MPs rather than the election lists or factional bonds. One thing is sure, though: all MPs must be devoted to Islamic values (as all need to be confirmed by the Guardian Council), except for five deputies who represent religious minorities.

In such a context, the lines can be drawn based on different criteria: between republicans and theocrats, reformists and conservatives, or moderates and radicals. The picture is complex, but observers of the Iranian political scene largely agree that in the current parliament conservatives lost to the reformers, although opinions about the exact number and scale of that victory vary. According to Agence France Presse, reformists won 133 and their rivals got 125, while the Iranian agency Tabnak said the two main factions won roughly the same number of seats (120), with the remainder going to independents.

The results have raised hopes that Iran’s new parliament might be more cooperative with the president’s camp than the previous one, but it does not mean that Rouhani’s hands are untied. There are several reasons for that.

The first is that there is no clear majority on the reformers’ side and so the attitude of independents is a crucial factor. The big question now is, who are these independents and to what extent will they support the Rouhani camp? The complexity of the issue rises even more given that some of the independents may not join any camp and instead prefer to vote on a case-by-case basis. 

The second issue is related to the specifics of the Iranian political system, in which the parliament is just one of several actors and its position is restrained by the theocratic features of the system, namely the Guardian Council. This 12-member conservative body (ideologically aligned with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) vets legislation according to criteria set by Islam and the constitution, and thus it has the power to block parliament’s initiatives. In such a political and institutional landscape any further steps would need a consensus among conservatives and reformists, which makes further economic reform a daunting task.

Resistance vs cooperation

There is no doubt that the election results have shown growing popular support for Rouhani and his economic agenda, which is a good signal ahead of the presidential election scheduled for next year. But this also presents the danger of his opponents trying to undermine the president’s position through the blocking of his economic plans. This would be a good strategy for the conservatives given that Rouhani won in 2013 on promises to bolster the economy and turn the nuclear deal with the West into an economic success. Delivering on that might be difficult, as one third of the population has just been stripped of government-funded cash payments by the outgoing parliament. This decision, strongly contested by Rouhani, is a harbinger of the tactic that his opponents could seek to employ more widely.

The ongoing rift between Rouhani and Khamenei over the scope of economic cooperation with the West also signals that enacting further reforms might not be a straightforward task. Rouhani believes in interdependence and advocates the opening up of the economy to foreign investment, seeing cooperation with the outside world as an indispensable condition of economic development. By contrast, Khamenei is a staunch supporter of the resistance economy – a concept which assumes that autarchy and limited relations with the West constitute a better tactic to preserve the current political system of Iran.

These developments show that investors longing to strike deals in Iran will need to pause for breath and stay patient while awaiting changes and observing the tensions fueled by the upcoming presidential election.

Aleksandra Jarosiewicz is a senior fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw.