Baby Steps in Iran
In recent elections in Iran, moderates, women, and reform-minded candidates were all victorious despite objections from the ruling conservatives, thanks partly to a meaningful enthusiasm gap. These results show incremental, but important, progress towards reducing the country’s isolation from the rest of the world.
The clerics disqualified the candidates, but they could not disqualify the people. So long were the queues outside many polling stations that Iran’s election commission postponed closing five times. Secular Iranians with pink hairdos stood in line waiting to vote against the mullahs. When a self-important hardline politician tried to queue-jump, they booed him to the back of the line.
In Jamaran, the Tehran district where Ayatollah Khomeini once berated western Satans, citizens cheered the architects of Iran’s overtures to the West as they came to vote. Muhammad Zarif, the foreign minister who negotiated the nuclear deal, got polite applause. A former president, Muhammad Khatami, who is perhaps Iran’s most popular politician despite being banned from state media, won a hero’s cheer.
By contrast, the turnout in south Tehran, a poorer, more conservative place, seemed dismal. Voters queued for hours in the north, but registered their ballots in the south within minutes. Organizers in the mosques which doubled as polling stations tried to rally their flock. They pinned posters in their porticos mocking America’s president, Barack Obama, and played nationalist songs over loudspeakers.
The Council of Guardians, a body packed with the Supreme Leader’s followers, had done its best to rig the results in advance. They had banned most reformist candidates for the Majlis, or parliament, and for a body of Shia clerics, the Assembly of Experts, who select the Supreme Leader. But the reformists outsmarted them. They compiled lists of those who remained, and when they had run out of their own candidates, filled them with the most innocuous of their rivals. They cut deals with pragmatic conservatives, like parliament’s speaker, Ali Larijani, whose deputy appeared on Tehran’s reformist list.
The upshot was a “List of Hope”, that was reformist in parts. Sometimes voters had a choice only between hardline and moderate conservatives. Many candidates appeared on both the List of Hope and the hardliners’ list. “We didn’t know half the people on the list, and the half we did know we didn’t like,” said a Tehran businessman. “But if you want change in the Middle East, you have two choices — reform what you can, or follow Syria.”
In the capital the List of Hope won all 30 parliamentary seats and all but one of the 16 Assembly of Experts seats. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has openly questioned the system of a single Supreme Leader, came first; Hassan Rohani, the president, third. Eight of the 30 were women. The reformist list won majorities in other cities including Isfahan, which hardliners had swept in 2012. In the Assembly of Experts, out went harshly pious hardline icons including Ayatollah Muhammad Yazdi, the current head of the body, and Muhammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the Revolution’s chief surviving theorist. It was, as President Rohani put it, a demonstration of people power. “They said in a loud voice: ‘We want interactions with the world, not confrontation.”’