The Art of the Possible: A Victory for Iranian Pragmatism

Friday’s elections to Iran’s Majlis and Assembly of Experts saw many prominent hardline conservatives and high-profile MPs swept from power, and the election to those institutions of2 new faces under the banner of the pro-Rouhani coalition’s List of Hope. It was the first time that all Tehran seats were won by one coalition, the first time a non-cleric was elected to the Assembly, the first time all 30 Tehran Majlis seats were elected in the first round. If even one of the eight female candidates running in next month’s second round wins her seat, the new Majlis will have the most female MPs of any of the other nine parliaments since the Revolution.

International reactions to Iran’s elections have ranged from calling them a “sweeping victory” for moderates to a “resounding message from voters” to – derisively – a ‘magical’ event that has somehow transformed hardliners into moderates. All of these reactions tend to view the elections through a factional lens, when one ought to take a different tack, and view them in more practical terms. After elections dominated by ordinary voters’ economic concerns, this new parliament will be less about which ‘political current’ is rising, and more about getting things done in a post-sanctions Iran.

More than a victory for moderates, more than a defeat for conservatives, these elections are a victory for Iranian pragmatism.

No doubt many reformists had hoped for a parliament that would free their leaders from house arrest and usher in expanded recognition of social and political freedoms, just as many hardline conservatives had hoped to retain their stranglehold on Iran’s institutions after losing the presidency in 2013. Instead, pragmatism won the day. After so many reformists were disqualified from running by the Guardian Council, the remaining reformist candidates decided to form a coalition with President Rouhani’s centrists with the blessing of reformist icon and former President Khatami. They did this not because they expect a cautious Rouhani to adopt their agenda wholesale, but because it provided the best chance of marginalizing the more stridently conservative members of Majlis and the Assembly. On this score, they succeeded, and Iranians have voted in a parliament and Assembly that reflects the centre of Iranian politics, rather than its margins.

President Rouhani signalled this new pragmatism when after the elections he called for “a new chapter based on domestic talents and global opportunities.” His agenda – and that of the new parliament – will be focused squarely on jobs and the economy, and not on overturning Iran’s political system in any substantive way. The Majlis results mean that Rouhani will have fewer problems dealing with the outside world because he is less likely to have his foreign minister called before parliament to be branded a traitor, for example, and less likely to face resistance to his desire for foreign investment in Iran.

The Assembly of Experts elections, too, signal pragmatism rather than overt reformism. Despite the disqualification of Hassan Khomeini, reformists opted to support Rafsanjani’s slate of moderate candidates, a slate which took all but one of Tehran’s seats in the Assembly. These victories are significant because this new Assembly could end up picking Iran’s next Supreme Leader. While – again – reformists would no doubt prefer to have some of their own in the Assembly, they can take solace in having defeated hardline conservatives Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi and Assembly Chairman Yazdi, each likely obstacles to the selection of a more moderate successor to Supreme Leader Khamenei.

If politics is the art of the possible, then Iran’s moderates opted for – and won – what was possible in these elections.