In Brief

Have the Latest Elections Strengthened Iran’s Hard-Liners?

A sweeping win in parliamentary elections helps Iranian conservatives in a time of mounting tensions with Washington, but record-low turnout signals fading public support for Iran’s hard-liners.

Why does it matter that regime hard-liners prevailed in this year’s parliamentary elections?

The hard-line elements of the Islamic Republic are attempting to consolidate power over all governing institutions. The parliamentary elections were significant because of the disqualification of thousands of moderate candidates. Iran’s unelected Guardian Council is responsible for vetting candidates for public office and used this power to shift the ground in favor of the conservatives, who won 221 out of 290 seats. The reformist tally dropped to 20 from 121 seats, with the remainder going to independents.

Does record-low voter turnout hurt the regime’s image at home?

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Turnout was only 42 percent, according to official reports. This marks the lowest participation in parliamentary elections in the last four decades and presents a serious crisis of legitimacy for a regime that likes to boast of its popular appeal. The low turnout comes on the heels of a series of events that have already fragmented Iran. First, November protests over rising fuel prices prompted security crackdowns that killed up to 1,500 people. Then came the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ downing of a Ukrainian airliner in January, which generated more protests. The facade of unity has already shattered, and the regime is starting to depend even more on hard-line loyalists, mainly in the security services and judiciary, as it faces an intensifying confrontation with the United States.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei places a ballot into a box at a polling station in Tehran.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei casts his vote at a polling station in Tehran. Official Khamenei website/Reuters

Iranian elites in recent years have grappled with two main paths for the country. One, represented by President Hassan Rouhani and the more moderate elements, proposes integration into the global economy as a means of addressing Iran’s economic challenges. The second, embraced by more hard-line elements and led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, promotes an “Economy of Resistance” that relies on internal markets and trade with friendly neighboring states such as Iraq and the Central Asian republics. In their telling, Iran will always be vulnerable to economic pressure if it relies on Western commerce. As the hard-liners consolidate their power, Iran is less likely to compromise on core issues such as its nuclear energy program—which Western states say is cover to develop nuclear weapons—and regional military activities.

Will the consolidation of conservative power have an impact on Iran’s actions in the region?

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The parliament has a limited role in foreign relations, and these elections will have little impact on Iran’s regional policies. But as the more moderate elements are purged from the political system, Iran will likely be led by conservatives who have little incentive to compromise on the regional policies that they view as successful. Iran has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime survive, bruised the Saudis in Yemen by backing the Houthi rebels, and influenced Lebanese politics by supporting the militant group Hezbollah. The hard-liners see little reason to disrupt this string of successes.

What are the chances that Iran will now pursue diplomacy to ease tensions with the United States?

There is little possibility of diplomatic engagement between the United States and Iran until after the U.S. presidential election in 2020 and the Iranian presidential election in June 2021. Rouhani is a lame-duck president who failed in his strategy to revive Iran’s economy by negotiating an arms control agreement. He lacks the credibility to forge a new diplomatic foray. Additionally, Iran awaits the naming of the next president of the United States. Once these two elections are over, both sides will have to determine whether a new round of diplomacy serves their objectives.

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