Iran isn’t changing: is it a bad thing? (HAFEZ)

The recent elections held on the 26th of February in Iran have yielded results – overall the internal situation does not change that much. Indeed, from a foreign policy point of view, there is nothing more annoying than regime change or internal instability; elections can bring about that uncertainty. Therefore, the questions begs itself to be asked – is it such a bad thing that an equilibrium between conservative and liberal (but still deeply nationalist) factions still exists in Iran today?

Parliamentary elections – the liberals show their faces, but no more

Before proceeding to decanter the electoral results, it may be worth noting that a second round of voting will be held during April. More than 54 million voters were registered and out of 12 000 desires to run as potential candidates, the Guardian Council deemed only around 6000 to meet the requisite characteristics, namely being not too liberal or reformist. Hence, from the onset, any clamor for the victory of liberalism over conservativism has to be nuanced somewhat – after all, those eligible to run have been vetted by the guardian council, a state organ not known for its “hippy” views. True, the “liberal” list headed by Mohammad Reza Aref gained 51 extra seats, to bring their total tally to 83 (146 seats are needed for an outright majority), but the principlist coalition it faced still remains a very powerful force with 64 seats. The overall impression of the results is that a new equilibrium has been enforced, most definitely more liberally-minded than before, but by no means all powerful. Furthermore, one can only expect the current Iranian establishment to wish to reign in any attempt to grasp power from the conservative elements of the central bureaucracy – expect the more conservative Guardians of the Revolution to keep a very watchful eye over the parliament in order to curtail any hint of rebellion or too enthusiastic liberalism.

 The assembly of experts – prudence is the renewed sexy

The results stemming from the election of 88 Experts from a possible 801 vetted candidates for the Assembly of Experts (tasked with appointing the next supreme leader) are further evidence for the desire of a prudent, (very) gradual change – indeed, non of the women candidates succeeded, and over 70% of the candidates were from the “Principlists” (directly or indirectly endorsed), generally considered the more conservative lists of clerics. Indeed, the reformists (ie those who adhere to Khatami’s proposal of reform within the republican framework) won only 22% of the seats outright. In any case, though a finer analysis of the election results confirms the rise of more moderate clergy in urban centres such as Teheran, the overall trend is that of a general status quo – yes the ultra-conservatives have lost seats, but the multiple endorsements by different parties of the same candidate show the actual spectrum of differences within the clergy to be quite small anyway. In short therefore, the Assembly of Experts is suitably prudent – not so conservative as to rebuke any gradual reform in the country, but not so liberal as to become a stockbroker’s pin up.

 The overall picture is one of stability – rejoice

All in all, the overall picture from the election results is one of measured conservativism – that is a good thing. Indeed, far be it for the author to deride liberalism and increased contact between Iran and the western world, especially since the signing of nuclear deals in 2015. However, in a country so vehemently nationalist and in some respects, paranoid about foreign infiltration (think back to gharb-zendegi or “Westoxication” present since the early 1930s), prudent conservativism sends out two signals: firstly, that of continuity – had the elections yielded very liberal results, then political instability in Iran and infighting between factions would have been a real danger. In the current middle-eastern context, such turmoil could have been disastrous. Secondly, the election results are proof of the proud nationalism that envelopes any and all of Iran’s public affairs. In layman’s terms the results state that the republic is here to stay, that it realizes the need for gradual opening and foreign investment, but that it values stability above all.

So what next for Europe?

Pragmatism should be the order of the day – in order for Europe to take advantage of this new market, it is paramount that it studies in detail the Iranian economy whilst taking into consideration the political calendar and results. In other words, Europe should be gearing itself up for the long game – this is not about selling the new Mercedes c class to all of Iran’s businessmen – this should be about long-term infrastructure investment and partnerships. Indeed, through the election results, the Iranian people have signaled that they are ready to interact once more with the western economies, but only if the country, its infrastructure and the economy profit from it on the middle and long run. In short, forget consumer goods, at least for now – invest in infrastructure and industry if you hope to gain a permanent foothold.

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