How Iran’s Hard-Liners Got Campaign Boost From Trump

As Iran’s president since 2013, Hassan Rouhani has sought to be a force of moderation in the country, rolling back his predecessor’s populist economic policies and confrontational approach to foreign relations. His tenure runs until mid-2021, but parliamentary elections Feb. 21 are widely expected to mark the beginning of the end of Rouhani’s brand of politics in Iran. Hard-liners and ultra conservatives are widely expected to win a majority in parliament.

1. Who controls parliament now?

While political parties exist in Iran, they’re not formally represented in parliament. Instead, there are two broad political factions — reformists and principlists — with varying shades of orthodoxy within each group. The 290-seat parliament has been dominated by a coalition of reformists, moderates and pragmatic conservatives since the last vote in 2016, which bolstered Rouhani and his cabinet. The principlist faction is in the minority. It contains Iran’s most right-wing, religious and hard-line politicians, who tend to prioritize the country’s security apparatus and theocratic leadership above all else. They mostly oppose engagement with the West and tend to be deeply hostile to the U.S.

2. Why are principlists favored to win?

Rouhani staked his credibility, and that of his camp, on Iran’s 2015 deal with world powers in which it agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions that had crippled its economy. In 2018, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal and began imposing harsh sanctions on Iran, depriving it of the economic benefits it had expected from the accord. Moderate politicians who supported Rouhani had already lost some support after failing to deliver on promises of greater social freedoms. But the American U-turn on the nuclear deal left them even weaker while empowering hard-liners, who largely opposed the nuclear accord from the start.

3. So it’s just that moderates have lost popular support?

It’s not just that. In the weeks ahead of the election, Iran’s 12-member Guardian Council, a powerful body of legal experts responsible for vetting candidates, has barred thousands of people from running. This includes some 75% of current lawmakers within the moderate coalition and some conservative politicians allied with Rouhani. The president and a number of leading reformers have criticized the disqualifications. Rouhani said they have effectively created a single-faction race that gives voters no choice. The council has defended its decisions and said many of those barred were guilty of corruption or “anti-state behavior.” Among those barred were six of 15 women incumbents who wanted to run again. In 2016, a record 17 women secured seats, 14 of them reformists. Another factor in the election is that some reformists say they will boycott the vote in response to the state’s violent crackdown on protests in November sparked by a sudden increase in the price of gasoline.

4. What powers does Iran’s parliament have?

It is weak relative to other seats of power. Ultimate power in Iran rests with the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is chosen by a group of Islamic scholars and politicians. The president, who is popularly elected, nominates cabinet members and is the government’s chief executive. In addition to approving all candidates for office, the Guardian Council has veto power over all legislation passed by parliament. Still, parliamentary sessions feature policy debates and critiques of the government. The body serves as a check on executive power by approving the budget, treaties and government ministers, whom it can also impeach.

5. How would a principlist win affect Iran’s economy?

Legislation for which Rouhani has been seeking parliamentary approval would likely be scrapped. That could include bills related to his efforts to bring Iran’s banking sector in line with international standards in order to stave off penalties against Iran’s lenders by the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force, which combats threats to the integrity of the international financial system such as money laundering. Another piece of legislation likely to die would re-denominate Iran’s currency, the rial, which plummeted in value after the U.S. reimposed sanctions. Knocking a few zeros off the exchange rate would make it easier for businesses and government to operate, and could help curb inflation. In addition, a more belligerent political establishment could encourage the U.S. to apply yet more sanctions to Iran. Many hard-liners are deeply suspicious of European countries and have advocated cutting ties entirely with the European Union and focusing on trade relations with countries such as China and Russia.

The Reference Shelf

  • Related QuickTakes on U.S.-Iran tensions, Iran’s nuclear program, the Iran nuclear deal and Europe’s response to Iran.
  • The International Monetary Fund’s page on Iran.
  • A Bloomberg news report explores whether Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran is working.

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