Iran’s Elections and the Nuclear Standoff

Ultraconservative Victory May Lead to Greater Clarity of Iran's Positions in Nuclear Negotiations

Matthew Duss examines the results of Iran’s most recent parliamentary elections for signs that the winners may be more secure in resuming negotiations with the West.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot for the parliamentary elections in Tehran, Iran, Friday, March 2, 2012. (AP/Office of the Supreme Leader)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot for the parliamentary elections in Tehran, Iran, Friday, March 2, 2012. (AP/Office of the Supreme Leader)

The outcome of Iran’s recent parliamentary elections—the ninth since the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1978—appears to be triumph for the ultraconservative supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His coalition of supporters captured more than 75 percent of the seats in the National Consultative Assembly, or Majlis. Of course with the sidelining of reformist elements within Iran in the wake of the June 2009 elections and the subsequent crackdown on reformist dissent within the country, the elections this past week were essentially a competition between conservative and ultraconservative factions jockeying for position under the supreme leader.

Iranian state TV reported that the United Principlist Front and the Stability Front together secured about three-quarters of the seats. The United Principlist Front was established in response to Khamenei’s call for unity among his supporters in the wake of the 2009 protests and is led by conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, secretary general of the Militant Clergy Association. The Stability Front is led by hardline cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a former spiritual adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has now withdrawn his support of the president.

Ahmadinejad has come under intense criticism over the past year for his efforts to expand the powers of the presidency. Even more threatening to his political career are accusations by many clerics of promoting a “deviant” strain of Islam that features elements of populism and nationalism. The defeat of many candidates affiliated with Ahmadinejad is an embarrassing rebuke to the president by his former political patron, the supreme leader.

Indeed, Ahmadinejad’s own sister even failed to win a seat in their hometown of Garmsar, southeast of Tehran. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that “Parvin Ahmadinejad has said that she will protest against voting ‘irregularities.’” Reformist candidates associated with Iran’s pro-democracy Green movement, which brought millions of Iranians into the streets in rejection of the results of the June 2009 presidential elections, could not even get their names on the ballot.

The reformists announced their decision to boycott the elections weeks ago, both as a gesture of protest and in anticipation of being prohibited from running by the Guardian Council, one of two official bodies, along with the Interior Ministry, responsible for vetting candidates. This year the Guardian Council barred 35 sitting MPs from seeking reelection and blocked nearly 2,000 other applicants from running. Leading Green movement figures Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both reformist candidates in 2009, have been under house arrest for more than a year.

Facing considerable internal tensions and growing popular discontent resulting from increasing international economic and financial sanctions because of Iran’s continued nuclear program, Iran’s leaders were clearly desperate to present the elections as an affirmation of the regime’s flagging legitimacy, and a rebuttal to international criticism and pressure over its controversial nuclear program. Iranian state television quoted Khamenei as declaring a religious obligation to vote, saying that a high voter turnout would “safeguard” Iran’s reputation. Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi similarly stated that a large turnout would “deal a heavy blow to the mouth” of Iran’s foes.

Reports from foreign journalists indicate that this election was even more tightly controlled than in previous elections. “I have never been corralled like this,” one Western reporter told PBS’s Tehran bureau. “Apart from the fact that people are very much afraid to talk in public, we have been constantly monitored and harassed.” Among the foreign media, he said, “We all agree this is the most tightly controlled we’ve ever seen it.”

Iranian officials declared a 64 percent turnout, a “victory” for the Islamic Republic. While it seems clear that the elections represent a victory for Ayatollah Khamenei’s efforts to reestablish dominance over Ahmadinejad’s upstart faction, it’s unclear what the results will mean for U.S.-led international efforts to pressure Iran to answer outstanding questions about its nuclear program.

Iran continues to face international isolation not seen since its earliest days. On Friday, Reuters reported that “India’s largest shipping company was forced to cancel an Iranian crude oil shipment last month because its European insurers refused to provide coverage for the vessel on the grounds of tightening sanctions.” India has been a key customer for Iranian oil, and was one of the remaining holdouts on implementing international sanctions.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has continued to state concerns about a lack of access to an Iranian military facility where it believes work related to nuclear weapons may be occurring. On Friday, Reuters reported that Western powers hope to win Russian and Chinese backing for a rebuke of Iran at a meeting of the IAEA’s Board of Governors this week. Speaking at the meeting today, IAEA chief Yukio Amano reiterated that “the agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.”

The goal of the U.S.-led pressure campaign has always been to bring Iran to the table in order to reach some mutual accommodation on Iran’s nuclear program, one which both satisfies concerns of the United States and its allies in regard to possible weapons-related work that Iran has undertaken, and recognizes Iran’s own rights to a peaceful civilian nuclear program. “Both Israel and the United States have an interest in seeing this challenge resolved diplomatically,” said President Obama in a speech Sunday to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. “After all, the only way to truly solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons. That’s what history tells us.”

Today European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton accepted, on behalf of the so-called P5+1 countries negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, comprised of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany, an offer by lead Iranian nuclear negotiator Seed Jalili to rejoin talks, with a time and venue to be announced. If Iran’s ultraconservative leaders truly see last week’s elections as an affirmation of their legitimacy, as they claim, then that could potentially create some domestic political space for them to accept a compromise on their nuclear program.

The supreme leader himself has long been known to be one of the biggest skeptics of the possibility of a deal with Western powers. He believes the West is out to destroy the Islamic Republic. But if Khamenei has now once again established himself as the unquestioned arbiter of Iran’s politics, as election reports suggest, he may feel more confident in allowing his representatives to engage with the P5+1 countries on the nuclear issue in a way that they have thus far been unwilling to do.

If the supreme leader truly thinks, as he said last month, that having nuclear weapons “is a sin as well as useless, harmful and dangerous,” now he has a chance to demonstrate that he truly means that by taking decisions to bring Iran back into full compliance with international regulations. Given the high stakes of the current standoff, it would be irresponsible not to explore that possibility.

Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress and Director of the Center’s Middle East Progress project.

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Matthew Duss

Policy Analyst