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How a pro-reform parliament can improve the future of Iran

A victory for reformers will help Rouhani continue pushing for improved relations with the West and revamp Iran’s wrecked economy

Iranians are heading to the ballot box today to cast their vote in Majlis (parliament) and Assembly of Expert elections, two votes that could change the nation’s future direction in many aspects, ranging from foreign policy to domestic economy.

Much attention has been paid to this year’s vote in Iran by the international media, especially given that it would be the first public referendum on the Rouhani administration, and perhaps can serve as a litmus test for the popular recognition of his policies, since already a fair number of his loyalists are running for seats in the Majlis.

Even though the majority of pro-reform and moderate candidates close to President Rouhani’s camp have been disqualified by the constitutionally mandated Guardian Council, which is in charge of vetting eligible contenders for different elections in Iran, the youth, students and supporters of President Rouhani have pinned their hopes on the formation of a relatively moderate parliament.

In their view, such a parliament can discard the policies of the conservatives that currently dominate the Majlis, pave the way for the economic and political development of the nation and smooth the path for President Rouhani to implement his social reform policies, further the nascent rapprochement with the West and break off Iran’s international isolation.

Campaigning trends over the past few days indicated the stiffness and seriousness of the competition between the conservatives, mostly allies of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and moderates close to President Rouhani.

Many of Ahmadinejad’s former cabinet members are running for the Majlis seats this year. The ex-ministers include first vice president Parviz Davoodi, communications minister Mohammad Soleimani, head of the atomic energy organisation Fereydoon Abbasi, vice president for parliamentary affairs Lotfollah Forouzandeh, health minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi and minister of petroleum Masoud Mir Kazemi.

Even though Ahmadinejad hasn’t endorsed them officially or explicitly, it’s conceivable that they wish to take over the parliament and lay the groundwork for his comeback when Iranians return to the polls to elect the president next year.

The conservatives and Ahmadinejad’s allies have been highly nervous over the past few years since they lost the executive power and suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2013 presidential race as their favourite candidate, Saeed Jalili – Iran’s former nuclear negotiator – won only 11.31 percent of the total votes tallied.

Perhaps their biggest failure was the conclusion of the landmark nuclear agreement between Iran and the six world powers in July 2015 achieved by Rouhani’s diplomatic apparatus, which they had raucously opposed since the beginning, as it included a rare detente with the United States and the West, and the opening up of Iran to the international community, which they dislike by nature and ideologically.

Iranian reformists don’t have enough candidates standing for the entire 290 parliamentary seats, but they’ve released a list featuring candidates for the majority of constituencies nationwide, especially those which by virtue of their higher population have more than one representative in the parliament.

In Tehran, which is the biggest constituency in Iran and has 30 representatives, the Council for Coordinating the Reforms Front has issued a list of 30 nominees in hopes of gaining the supermajority. The list is topped by Mohammad Reza Aref, a noted reformist politician and presidential runner in the 2013 election, who withdrew his bid in support of Hassan Rouhani. Aref is a Stanford University graduate, a deputy to former president Mohammad Khatami and anticipated by many to become the Speaker of Parliament should his camp win the majority.

In the other cities, the reformists and moderates have tried to settle for the lesser-known hopefuls in the absence of their distinguished figureheads who were rejected by the Guardian Council.

The reform coalition has asked the people, especially in the larger cities like Mashhad, Isfahan, Tabriz, Shiraz, Ahvaz and Rasht, to vote for the entire list, instead of going for the individual candidates.

During the one week of campaigning, the conservatives and hardliners who had felt the tremors of the growing popularity of reformists - after two consecutive parliamentary elections in 2008 and 2012 in which they won an absolute majority uncontested - pulled out all the stops to defame their rivals and discredit them, either by accusing them of financial corruption or by charging them with being supported by the “foreign enemies,” namely Britain and Saudi Arabia.

They alleged that BBC Persian has asked the Iranian people to vote for the reformist candidates, as an indication of the foreign sponsorship they’re supposedly receiving. However, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is vying for the Assembly of Experts (the vote for which takes place simultaneously with the legislative elections today) and is expected to be the leading contender in Tehran, has issued a statement, decrying the defamation campaign, saying, “imploring the foreign media to slander one’s rival won’t yield any results.”

In the gatherings of their supporters and at press conferences, the conservative candidates openly accused many of President Rouhani’s cabinet members, including his personal aide and younger brother Hossein Fereydoun, of corruption and being involved in big scandals. They’ve pledged that they’ll take note of people’s economic concerns and bring about prosperity and wellbeing for the public.

They’ve been vocally questioning the inflation rate and recession in the country, while they graciously overlooked the staggering inflation rate of 40 percent under President Ahmadinejad, the unprecedented devaluation of Iran’s currency he caused with his policies, the collapse of Iran’s foreign trade and widespread corruption he condoned, as manifested in such cases as the Babak Zanjani scandal.

However, what’s understandable is that the competition is so heated, and that the possible victory of the reformists in the polls will herald more hopeful, encouraging days for the Iranian people. A pro-reform parliament will help President Rouhani continue pushing for improved relations with the West and the community of nations in general, revamp Iran’s wrecked economy after more than a decade of grueling sanctions and implement his policies for increased social and political freedoms.

President Rouhani has recently talked of the “JCPOA 2.0,” a reference to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, by which he apparently means national reconciliation among the different factions of people, especially critics of the government and those upset by the bitter developments that followed the 2009 presidential election. This is a promise of an improvement of civil liberties, press freedom and other social rights that were mostly neglected under his predecessor.

A pro-reform parliament will definitely increase Rouhani’s chances of being reelected president next year since it will support his administration, while a conservative parliament occupied by the allies of former president Ahmadinejad will see itself as a rival of Rouhani set on throwing a spanner in his works at any cost.

- Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and media correspondent. He is staff writer with Iran Review and a reporter with the California-based Fair Observer. He has also contributed to Huffington Post, Your Middle East, International Policy Digest, Gateway House and Tehran Times.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani casting his vote at a polling station in Tehran on 26 February, 2016 (AFP/Iranian Presidency).