Who, or what, actually won the Iranian elections held last week? To hear some tell it, the vote—for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body—was a victory for the forces of moderation, a repudiation of the “hardline” anti-Western policies associated with the allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, maybe even a signal that real democracy could finally take root in the country. On the other hand, the fact that Khamenei’s allies get a veto on who can run for office in the first place invites the counter-narrative that Iran’s political moderates are actually hardliners; less hardline than the hardest hardliners, perhaps, but only at the “moderate” end of a very narrow, very conservative spectrum.
So which is it? The vote count is all but final, but the true results are still murky. Candidates on a list allied with President Hassan Rouhani—who secured a nuclear deal with Western powers, and who has pushed an opening, at least economically, to the rest of the world—swept all 30 parliamentary seats in the capital Tehran, and appear to have done well elsewhere in the country. In the 88-member Assembly of Experts, which is constitutionally charged with picking Iran’s next supreme leader once the 76-year-old Khamenei dies, two prominent “hardliners” lost their seats, leaving a more moderate majority. “If the moderates [in the Assembly of Experts] have their way,” explained Ali Akbar Dareini of the Associated Press, “the next supreme leader will favor the expansion of democratic freedoms and greater openness toward the West.”
But ahead of the vote, the Guardian Council, which vets candidates for electoral offices, disqualified thousands of them, including many prominent figures who advocate political reform. At the same time, institutions whose members aren’t popularly elected, including the office of the supreme leader, the Guardian Council, the judiciary, and the security services, are the most powerful in Iran’s government. And they remain in the hands of hardliners.
Another reason it’s difficult to know the significance of these elections—aside from the dueling claims of victory from each camp, and the fact that, as Thomas Erdbink of The New York Times reported Wednesday, “there has been no official comment on the affiliation of the winning candidates”—is that Iran does not have strong political parties. Knowing that Republicans have a majority in the U.S. Congress, for example, gives you a rough sense of that body’s legislative priorities and how they would differ from those of a Democratic Congress. As Majlis Monitor, a website devoted to Iranian politics, notes, “While political parties help us see a country’s political fault-lines, their absence in Iran makes it difficult to understand how politics are actually [organized] and work there.”
There are instead what Majlis Monitor calls “political currents”: “shifting alliances between political groups and prominent individuals, key socio-economic constituencies, and centers of power.” These all add up to the two broad “camps” you’re likely to see described in English-language media: “[T]he reformist and centrist currents ... together form the ‘moderate’ camp; and the traditional and hard-line conservative currents ... constitute the conservative (or ‘[principlist]’) camp.” Hence confusing descriptions of Rouhani’s “moderate-reformist” coalition, which includes some “moderate conservatives” as well as “pragmatic and pro-government forces,” some of whom may even be “centrist.” (In contrast to the “hardliners,” who may even be “extremists” but are at the very least “conservative.”)
As Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told me, “The nomenclature we use to describe Iranian politicians … is sometimes misleading and must be understood in the context of Iranian politics.”
I asked Sadjadpour to explain what the election results mean—for Iran’s voters as well as for the country’s place in the world. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation, conducted by phone and email, follows.
Kathy Gilsinan: Who or what are moderates in Iran? How much do we know about them?
Karim Sadjadpour: The nomenclature we use to describe Iranian politicians—such as reformists, moderates, and hardliners—is sometimes misleading and must be understood in the context of Iranian politics. While the overall results are inconclusive, the reformist list [of candidates allied to President Rouhani]—called the “List of Hope”—won all 30 of Tehran’s parliamentary seats, but given the mass disqualifications that took place before the election, the majority of these folks are unknown quantities, and a few of them actually self-identify as conservatives.
I remember in the early 2000s meeting a female Scandinavian journalist who visited Tehran and interviewed a prominent reformist politician about his views. In Iran he was considered a moderate, so she was surprised when he defended the Islamic Republic’s persecution of Baha’is and argued that women should remain veiled, homosexuality is a criminal disease, alcohol should be illegal, and Israel is a cancerous tumor. Yet it was also true that he was much more liberal than his hardline counterparts.
I suspect many of the incoming reformist members of parliament may hold more progressive views in their heart, but given their lack of experience I also expect them to be timid and easily intimidated. For example, hours after the results were announced, a newly victorious female MP called Parvaneh Salahshori said in an English-language interview with an Italian reporter that women should not be forced to veil. A day later, I presume under pressure, she disavowed the interview.
The prevailing wisdom is that this new parliament will support President Rouhani in promoting Iran’s economic reform and development and will focus less on divisive issues such as political and social change—the so-called China model. But I think it will be very difficult to achieve the former without the latter. Iran’s economy will continue to underperform as long as the country remains politically and socially authoritarian. They want to create a Silicon Valley without the cultural values and tolerance that made Silicon Valley possible.
Gilsinan: Is there any chance that the new Assembly of Experts would have a moderating influence, either on the current supreme leader or the next one? Am I right in thinking that they have a technical constitutional ability to act as a check on the supreme leader?
Sadjadpour: The Assembly of Experts could potentially play an important role in the succession process when Khamenei leaves the scene. For much of the last three decades they’ve been a rubber-stamp institution of geriatric clerics. On paper they have supervisory status over the supreme leader and the authority to choose his (always male) successor, but they’ve really only acted once, after Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989. There’s a remarkable video of how then-Speaker of Parliament Hashemi Rafsanjani claimed that when Khomeini was on his deathbed he told him on several occasions that Khamenei (who was then president) would be a worthy supreme leader. That was it.
Iran’s political dynamics are much different now. The political and economic power of the Revolutionary Guards has arguably eclipsed that of the clergy, and I suspect they’ll want to have a say over who is Khamenei’s replacement. Khamenei is 76 years old, and there is lots of speculation about his health condition, although he shows so signs that he’s ailing.
Since  Rafsanjani and Khamenei have become fierce rivals, and Rafsanjani was actually the top vote-getter in the Assembly of Experts election. People are hoping that he may be able to steer the country in a more moderate direction after Khamenei dies, although at age 81 he is five years older than Khamenei.
Gilsinan: You at one point told me that in Iran now, yesterday’s conservatives are today’s moderates, and yesterday’s hardliners are today’s pragmatists.
Sadjadpour: There are many examples of this. In Iran’s 2000 parliamentary elections, Rafsanjani failed to win a seat because voters considered him too conservative and corrupt; now people are counting on him to curb the power of Iran’s hardliners. Fifteen years ago Rouhani was a security apparatchik who was considered hostile to civil society and the Iranian student movement. Today he’s considered a reformist president. Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani was once thought of as an arch hardliner, today’s he’s considered a “pragmatist.”
I think there are a few reasons for this. First, the Islamic Republic has purged, imprisoned, and exiled many reformist politicians over the years (such as former President Khatami), so the country’s political spectrum has shifted rightward. Second, some of these politicians have actually mellowed with age and experience. Lastly, given the rise of more radical groups elsewhere in the Middle East, Iranian politicians increasingly look moderate in comparison. Compared to ISIS, Iran’s leaders resemble Danish politicians.
Gilsinan: So it’s all relative. Would you say that this incoming parliament, or this Assembly of Experts, is more moderate than the one immediately preceding it, but less moderate than parliament was several years ago?
Sadjadpour: There was a period of four years, from 2000-2004, in which Iran had both a very reform-minded president (Khatami) as well as a very reform-minded parliament. They were boldly challenging some of the fundamental tenets of the Islamic Republic, such as the authority of the supreme leader and other unelected bodies. There was also a vibrant media environment. Ayatollah Khamenei’s political future appeared bleak, and many believed change was inevitable.
But the conservatives used all the coercive means at their disposal to fight back and eventually reclaim both the parliament and the presidency, with the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For the next decade much of the forward progress made during Khatami’s tenure was reversed.
Given this history we shouldn’t assume that Iran’s current trend lines of moderation and reform are irreversible. The country’s security and intelligence apparatus hasn’t gone anywhere. We should never underestimate the Iranian people’s will for change, but nor should we underestimate the Iranian regime’s will, and means, to crush those who seek change.
Gilsinan: Rouhani and his allies are considered moderate in the United States because of their stance toward the United States, right?
Sadjadpour: There’s often but not always a correlation between moderate foreign-policy views and moderate domestic-policy views. One way to think about the distinction between principlists and pragmatists in Iran is the philosophical debate among U.S. Supreme Court justices. Late Justice [Antonin] Scalia believed in an originalist or textualist interpretation of the Constitution, while liberal justices like [Stephen] Breyer see the constitution as more of a living document that must evolve with the times.
Khamenei and Rouhani have philosophical differences about how to best sustain the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khamenei and the hardliners want to maintain the original principles of the Islamic Republic, whether that means Islamic mores [at] home or a resistance foreign policy abroad. Rouhani and the moderates believe that policies Iran adopted in 1979—such as “Death to America”—don’t necessarily serve the country’s interests in 2016.
The battle between these two camps is just getting started and could take years if not decades to resolve.
Gilsinan: I want to stick with the American analogy. If you disqualified all the Democrats, and then voters, however far left or right they were, were left choosing between Cruz and Trump, it would change what a “moderate” looked like in that context. Is the range really that narrow in Iran?
Sadjadpour: Trying to analogize Iranian politics to American politics is always thorny. Winston Churchill said about Russia that it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a limited democracy, wrapped in a military autocracy, inside a theocracy. The supreme leader and Revolutionary Guards have consistently outmuscled the country’s semi-elected institutions, partly by strictly controlling who can get elected to these institutions.
Imagine if America was ruled for life by a Supreme Christian leader, always male, who was firmly backed by the U.S. military, Supreme Court, and American media, and presidential and congressional elections were only open to carefully vetted candidates who vowed not to challenge this framework.
There is no doubt that there are fierce factional battles in Iran, and real differences of opinion among Iranian politicians. These distinctions can make a limited difference in people’s everyday lives, and may prove important in choosing the next supreme leader.
But from a macro perspective the same man has been supreme leader for the last 27 years, and Iran’s longtime revolutionary principles—such as opposition to the U.S., the rejection of Israel’s existence, and the mandatory veiling of women—haven’t changed for 37 years.
Noam Chomsky once wrote that “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” He was ostensibly describing the U.S., but it aptly captures the domestic politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I know many observers of Iran would argue that Iran is actually much more tolerant and democratic than I’m describing. Yet many of these folks have not set foot in Iran in years for fear of being imprisoned.
Gilsinan: What do Iranian voters want? I heard the Reuters reporter Yeganeh June Torbati on the radio describing the actor and director Hamid Farokh-Nejad—his philosophy of the vote was basically that, in Torbati’s words, “rather than trying to elect certain candidates, they were trying to stop other candidates, namely the hardliners, from getting elected or from retaining power.” Is that a reflection of the electorate more broadly, or is that sort of sentiment most prominent in Tehran and major urban areas? What kind of support does the Islamic Republic itself have?
Sadjadpour: Gauging popular opinion inside authoritarian regimes is always challenging. Iranian elections consistently show that hardline candidates who reflect the supreme leader’s worldview are routinely trounced by candidates who stand for change. Yet the Islamic Republic could not have survived for 37 years without a strong base of support.
The son of a senior Iranian cleric once told me what’s most important is not the breadth of the regime’s support but the depth of their support. Meaning 200,000 Revolutionary Guards and basij [militia] members who are willing to go to the streets to kill and die for the regime can stifle many millions of Iranians who are only willing to express their opposition to the regime on social media.
Given the chaos and carnage happening elsewhere in the Middle East, I think many Iranians have resigned themselves to the fact that there are no quick fixes, and the pace of change is going to be slow and incremental. In this context voting can make a difference—you may not be able to move the dial from one to 10, but maybe you can move it from one to two or three.
Gilsinan: So where do you think the dial is now?
Sadjadpour: There’s a possibility that you see contradictory trends in Iran, which is a parliament that is more progressive and at the same time a security and intelligence apparatus that feels threatened and grows even more repressive.
My close friend Siamak Namazi and his 80-year-old father Bagher—both U.S. citizens—are in Evin prison. I think the Revolutionary Guards will continue to target others whom they perceive as a threat to their interests, and it remains to be seen whether a more liberal parliament will be able to curb their powers.
I think one thing analysts working on the Middle East must be mindful about is not to conflate our hopes and our analysis. We would like to see moderates prevail and therefore our analysis reflects that fact. The Iranian Revolution, the Lebanese Cedar Revolution, and the Arab Spring are all examples of why it’s never wise to declare victory in the first quarter. We have continually underestimated the resilience and persistence of the forces of authoritarianism in the Middle East.