Iran's reformists won a huge victory in the country's elections -- but there's a big catch

Iran’s reformists are cheering the results of the Islamic Republic’s elections, held Sunday in what was widely seen as a referendum for President Hassan Rouhani’s more moderate policies that have ushered in an opening with the west.

Final election tallies showed candidates on the reformist ticket — who espouse a political movement aimed at changing Iran’s system to include more freedom and democracy — won 27% of the overall vote and gained roughly 30 parliamentary seats in the Tehran constituency, Reuters reported.

Reformists also won 15 out of 16 seats allocated for Tehran in the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with choosing the Republic’s next Supreme Leader after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But many analysts are sceptical that the reformists’ electoral success — deemed by many as a blow to the Republic’s hardliners — was as significant or decisive as it seems.

“This was a win by centrists — particularly President Rouhani — with some reformist window dressing,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, President of the political risk firm Eurasia Group, told Business Insider on Monday.

And Amir Toumaj, an Iran expert at the Washington, DC-based think tank the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, noted in an interview that “while it is true that the reformist-backed ticket gained seats in the elections, this shouldn’t be declared a victory for reformists.”

Iranian election iranRaheb Homavandi/TIMA via ReutersAn Iranian policeman casts his ballot during elections for the parliament and Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader, in Tehran, Iran February 26, 2016.

“The radicals had dealt the final blow to the reformists even before the ballots were open,” Toumaj told Business Insider on Monday.

That is because candidates running on the reformist ticket were not necessarily reformists, he said. Roughly 80% of the Assembly’s around 800 contenders were disqualified from running in the elections by clerics appointed to the hardline Guardian Council by Ayatollah Khamenei, leaving the reformists little choice but to form a coalition with “less hardline-hardliners” — who call themselves moderates — to have a chance at winning seats.

“The reformists and pragmatist camps formed an alliance with what they think are some of the ‘less-hardline hardliners,'” Toumaj said. “But this should not be interpreted as the softening of the radicals’ zealotry.”

“The radical officials on that ticket do not support the reformist agenda. Some literally have the reformists’ blood on their hands,” he added. “According to reformist figures and many Iranians, their options were between bad and worse.”

Iranian electionRaheb Homavandi/TIMA via ReutersElection officials count ballot papers after the close of polling stations during elections for the parliament and a leadership body called the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader, in Tehran February 26, 2016.

Bremmer, of Eurasia Group, noted that the limited selection of candidates, many of them hand-picked, was not surprising.

“A big win by actual reformists would likely be perceived as a mortal threat to the theocracy and would more likely be quashed, violently if necessary,” he said. “Iran elections are hardly free and fair. It’s a Hong Kong like system, with an anti-democratic process determining who gets to run.”

Indeed Saeed Ghasseminejadas, an associate fellow at the FDD, put it bluntly in an analysis of the electoral process published last week: “The only candidates allowed to run were those deemed to pose no challenge to the ruling hardline establishment.”

Still, the relative electoral success of the moderate-reformist ticket was undoubtedly a testament to the public’s dissatisfaction with the hardliners who continue to dominate the country’s political institutions, and 62% came out to vote.

Bremmer, for his part, remained optimistic.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the elections…there’s big support for the nuclear deal, and while the Iranian economy will likely contract this year, there’s a lot of optimism about the future,” he said. “And the hardliners — the ones who were most sceptical of the nuclear deal and an Iran opening to the west — didn’t do well at all.”

“For the citizens and Iran and those who would hope to engage them,” he added, “this was a positive outcome.”

But Toumaj cautioned westerners not to read too much into the election results, noting that radicals still dominate the Assembly of Experts, The Guardian Council, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — an ideologically driven militia that controls virtually every aspect of Iranian society under the watchful eye of the Ayatollah.

“The focus by much of the U.S. media on the electoral process assumes that the reformists can somehow overcome the unelected institutions dominated by radicals,” Toumaj said. “In Iran, the deep state — which will survive beyond Khamenei — can undo the reformists overnight.”

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