Who Won the February Elections in Iran? Not the Moderates

Judging by the coverage in major U.S. news outlets, the Islamic Republic's first elections since last summer's nuclear deal resulted in a resounding victory for the forces of democracy, moderation and closer ties with the outside world. The truth is starkly different.
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Reformists did not win Iran's elections in February, but they certainly dominated the headlines. Judging by the coverage in major U.S. news outlets, the Islamic Republic's first elections since last summer's nuclear deal resulted in a resounding victory for the forces of democracy, moderation and closer ties with the outside world.

The truth is starkly different. In the Assembly of Experts - a body of Muslim clerics that chooses Iran's supreme leader - hardliners won 75 percent of the seats, while independents and relatively more pragmatic revolutionaries won the rest. In parliament, the pragmatists - though not "moderates" in any meaningful sense - scored better, gaining about 28 percent of seats, while its harder-line rivals won 27 percent, independents took 22 percent and the remaining 23 percent will be decided in an April runoff election.

So what caused the impression in Western media of a reformist victory in parliament, and the notion that the Assembly of Experts results mean its members could select a "moderate" as the next supreme leader? It's this: an astounding 80 percent of candidates for the Assembly and 50 percent for parliament were disqualified by the Guardian Council - the body that vets candidates for their ideological commitment to Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Consequently, non-hardliners did not have enough candidates with relatively "moderate" credentials for their list, and had to rely on hardliners to fill it. These include Ali Movahedi-Kermani, the supreme leader's former representative to the ultra-hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

A week after signing the nuclear deal he delivered his Friday prayer behind a podium bearing the words, "We will trample upon America." They also include Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi - a former intelligence minister responsible for a string of assassinations against intellectuals in the 1990s - as well as Mohammad Reyshahri, another ex-intel minister who oversaw the murder of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s, and Yousef Tabatabaee-Nejad, who slammed opponents of the headscarf as "infidels" and encouraged violence against women who don't adopt strict Islamic dress.

In Tehran, longtime hardliner Kazem Jalali had an overnight epiphany and ran on the more pragmatic ticket, despite his previous demand for imposing harsh punishment on the jailed leaders of the reformist Green Movement. Others on the putatively moderate list include Mustafa Kavakebian, who has described Israelis as "not human."

The so-called reformists even supported parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, who co-led the hardliners' counterattack against the reform movement during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As a result, neither Khamenei nor the Revolutionary Guard was threatened by February's ballot. They have successfully neutralized the reform movement, including the Green Movement of 2009, which was quashed by regime brute force in fraudulent elections that saw the return of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency. Today, most reformist leaders are either in jail or under house arrest. To make it clear that the results do not alter Iran's behavior, the Revolutionary Guards launched a several ballistic missiles, including the long-range Ghadr H missile with a specific message written on it in Hebrew: "Israel should be wiped off the Earth"

Why should Americans care about Iran's elections?

What happened this February was hardly an election in the way that Americans understand the word. Voters were allowed to choose only candidates who adhere to Iran's official ideology, who even once elected, have their power strictly limited by unelected institutions.

With the unelected officials and hardliners firmly entrenched, last summer's deal allows the worst elements in Iran to build an industrial-size nuclear program over the course of just 15 years. The likelihood that Iran will use its nuclear program for nefarious purposes - including threatening the West - significantly increases.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic has not concealed its determination to develop more powerful ballistic and cruise missiles. A violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, these missiles threaten both the United States and its allies.

These hardline elements also just received a windfall of $100 billion in sanctions relief thanks to the nuclear deal. It will be the hardliners and the Revolutionary Guards that receive the lion's share of these dollars. They will, in turn, destabilize the already volatile Middle East, support Syria's regime in its brutal crackdown on civilians, and further bankroll its terrorist proxies from Baghdad to Beirut.

Finally, by all credible accounts, Iran's human rights abuses have increased since President Rouhani - a purported moderate - took office. With the hardliners and pragmatists who support the hardliners more fully embedded in the regime's power structure, these violations will continue unabated.

Don't believe the media hype. This election changes little in the Islamic Republic.

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