2016 Iranian Elections: Clash of Reform and Revolution

After Iran’s most recent battery of elections and run-offs, American news sources were filled with headlines such as “Hardliners lose Parliament to Rouhani Allies,” and “Moderates, Reformists Make Gains, Fall Short of Majority,” but also “Who Really Won Iran’s Elections?” A few days after the first set of elections, Fortune published an article titled “What Iran’s Elections Mean for its Future.” If news outlets cannot seem to agree on whether reformists were victorious in an election, what can we really take from election results? Can one election and run-off be given this much credit for changing the direction of Iran’s future?

President Hassan Rouhani is often called a reformist or a moderate, but what do these labels really mean? In Iranian domestic politics, the labels of “moderate” and “reformist” each have a specific meaning. It does not make for quality analysis to use them interchangeably. While “reformist” really does indicate the left-orientedness that we expect, “moderate” can include moderately conservative right-wingers. Based on this, Rouhani cannot be given credit for being a “reformist.” Instead, within the Iranian system, he is considered a moderate. Caution is still necessary here, as neither “moderate” nor “moderately conservative right-winger” means the same as it would in a Western regime.

Karim Sadjadpour told the Atlantic in the earlier mentioned article “Who Really Won Iran’s Elections?” about an interview that a Western reporter did with an Iranian “moderate.” The reporter was shocked to hear his stances on issues. “In Iran he was considered a moderate, so she was surprised when he defended the Islamic Republic’s persecution of Baha’is and argued that women should remain veiled, homosexuality is a criminal disease, alcohol should be illegal, and Israel is a cancerous tumor. Yet it was also true that he was much more liberal that his hardline counterparts.” Applying this anecdote to Rouhani and his supporters, in this election known as the “Hope List,” the label of “moderate” is correct within the scope of Iranian politics. It is not, however, transferable to how we normally see it in the West.

Looking past the labels applied to Iranian political figures, the political system in Iran also does not function along lines expected by most American analysts. Unlike the Unites States’ system, Iran does not have formalized political parties. Instead, Farzan Sabet argues that the system is made up of “highly factionalized politics that can be understood in terms of political currents.” These currents can be labeled as the reformist, centrist, traditionalist, and hardliner currents, then generally fall into the moderate and conservative alliances. Candidates running for office run as individuals, though they normally claim one of the major currents or alliances while running. They, however, are not bound to always vote based on that affiliation. This makes for an extremely fluid system, with much less definition and predictability than U.S. analysts expect.

Within these currents, President Rouhani is firmly planted in the centrist camp. Centrist is an appropriate name for this camp, as they generally strike a balance between the reformist and conservative camps. They focus on economic growth, particularly in the private sector, advocate for a foreign policy that is less confrontational than hardliners would like, and show markedly less concern about enforcing Islamic mores than conservatives. Reformists, on the other hand, focus on obtaining and ensuring social and political freedoms, and are routinely disqualified from running in elections.

The other two currents, the traditionalists and the hardliners, generally band together to create the conservative alliance. This alliance holds fast to loyalty to Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and dominates unelected power centers across the system, including the Guardian Council, the judiciary, and the security forces. It is through this domination of unelected power centers that Khamenei is able to maintain complete control over the entirety of the regime, including the disqualification of those running for office of whom he does not approve such as the true reformists.

Grand Ayatollah Khamenei. Photo Credit: Khamenei, Amir Hosein, Flickr                                                      Creative Commons

Another way for analysts to reconcile their thought processes to the Iranian system of governance was put forth by Roya Hakanian in her article “Misreading Iran’s Elections: Iranian Infighting and American Narcissism,” for the World Affairs Journal. She wrote that “While rifts and power struggles, some of them profound, do exist within the regime, they are far better understood in mafia terms, as distinct groups warring over economic and political interests, rather than in the familiar and reassuring political terms of the West.” Whether analysts imagine the Iranian regime as functioning like a fluid entity made up of constantly flowing currents or as a mafia system made up of warring factions, it is most important that they realize and take into account that the Iranian system is its own and cannot be examined as if it was modeled after systems we see in the West.

Another moniker given to the conservative alliance is that of “principlists,” for their adherence to the principles of the revolution, at least rhetorically. This, like most stances taken by the conservative alliance, follows the path of Ayatollah Khamenei. One of Khamenei’s titles, that of “the great leader of the Islamic Revolution,” highlights the importance of the revolution still in society and politics today. This determination among the regime to continue viewing themselves and the state as “revolutionary” determines how domestic politics are allowed to be conducted. In the view of Khamenei, reformists are not only a threat to the ideology of the regime, they are also a threat to the very existence of the regime. Therefore they cannot be allowed to gain too much power or influence. A revolution cannot exist without enemies, and reformists make good enemies to feed into the continuation of the Iranian revolution.

Before Western readers can perform a quality analysis on the most recent set of Iranian elections, they must set aside many of their Western viewpoints of democracy and the political process. What we see is not the same as what we think we see. This is not to state that these elections showed absolutely no hope for change or reform. Eighteen women won parliamentary seats, while only sixteen members of the clergy did the same. This was a historic high for women and a historic low for the clergy. The question is what real effect these changes can have on the regime as a whole. Karim Sadjapour left readers with a reminder that “We should never underestimate the Iranian people’s will for change, but nor should we underestimate the Iranian regime’s will, and means, to crush those who seek change.” This is a nice rhetorical statement, but it should also serve as a reminder to analysts who have a responsibility to not let hope overtake political reality. 

KaylynKaylyn Wade is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School, concentrating mainly in Diplomacy and Intelligence.  She grew up in northwest Georgia and earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in history and political science.  She began concentrating on the Middle East and Africa during her undergraduate studies, and is still primarily interested in politics and security in those areas.  Her goal is to establish a career in which she combines historical understanding with quality intelligence analysis to contribute meaningfully to US foreign policy and diplomatic practice.


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