Why the Iranian elections were a huge success

Pepe Escobar
Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia Times Online. Born in Brazil, he's been a foreign correspondent since 1985, and has lived in London, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, Washington, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Even before 9/11 he specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central and East Asia, with an emphasis on Big Power geopolitics and energy wars. He is the author of "Globalistan" (2007), "Red Zone Blues" (2007), "Obama does Globalistan" (2009) and "Empire of Chaos" (2014), all published by Nimble Books. His latest book is "2030", also by Nimble Books, out in December 2015.
© Raheb Homavandi
It’s no less than extraordinary that in last weekend’s elections in Iran, Team Rouhani’s opponents – especially the anti-nuclear deal hardliners – were giving a resounding “shellacking” (Obama’s term) in Tehran.

They virtually vanished as representatives of the capital, not only at the Majlis (Parliament), but also at the slightly Orwellian-denominated 88-member Assembly of Experts, which will choose the next Supreme Leader and currently oversees Ayatollah Khamenei.

There’s simply no ultra-conservative/hardliner featured among the 30 elected parliamentarian members in Tehran (their leader, Gholam Ali Adel, clocked at 31st). The winners were provided by the so-called 'List of Hope'; that’s how former President Mohammad Khatami defined the pro-reform candidates.

Yes, never underestimate the wisdom of Iranian voters.

Why does Tehran matter so much? Because the elected representatives of the capital are those who dictate the political direction of the Majlis.

At the Assembly of Experts, the three key ultra-conservatives were also shellacked. Prime among them is Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a.k.a. 'The Crocodile' and Chief Inquisitor of any reformist “sedition”. I once tried – in vain – to interview him at his seminary in Qom in 2006; he refuses to talk to foreign journalists. It’s key to remember that Mezbah Yazdi was the spiritual mentor of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Also shellacked was ultra far-right Mohammad Yazdi. And finally, and very significantly, Ayatollah Janati, the head of the Council of Guardians - which had conducted the selection of candidates to these twin elections, duly invalidating countless figures judged “too critical” of the “system”.

The bottom line is that the Assembly of Experts is now centrist – still far from reformist; President Rouhani himself and former president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a.k.a. 'The Shark', attracted the most votes, alongside 57 other centrists.

Slow, gradual, and no agitprop

All of the above only happened because of an extremely strong mobilization in Tehran of the liberal, middle class young vote and the female vote. Young Iranians – men and women – after all compose the majority of voters – and the majority of the population. If they had a collective mantra, it would be something like, “Enough of the hardliners” – whose intolerance has only contributed to increase Iran’s isolation from the West.

The “shellacking” is also due to the still phenomenal popular appeal of Khatami – he of “dialogue of civilizations” fame, always supported en masse by women and the youth, as much as he is hated like the plague by the ultra far-right,  the unelected cogs in the complex Iranian political machine. If there was a moniker to define the Khatami appeal, it would be his embodiment of popular trust in reform.

A pragmatic/centrist Parliament will be a boon to Rouhani in his quest for economic opening - even though the pragmatist/centrists will remain a minority compared to the Khomeinists.

That’s because rural, provincial Iran is over-represented in the parliament; for instance, the country’s 8 biggest cities, where the pragmatist/centrists did very well, concentrate more than half of the population, but account for only 57 of the 290 seats in parliament.

So now it will be up to horse-trading. The Tehran pragmatist/centrists will have enough room to seduce many a pragmatic conservative to cooperate with them in parliament for the national benefit. That will exclude, of course, the ultra far-right, which was against the nuclear deal and is not exactly keen on Iran’s economic and cultural opening to the West (Asia is another story, which is centered on business.)

What the elections’ results produced already is renewed interest by potential European investors in the highly promising Iranian market. Iran needs at least $50 billion in foreign capital a year, according to a 5-year-plan presented by the Rouhani government in January.

The key area is of course energy; new oil contracts more attractive to foreign multinationals have already been announced - to the wrath of the hardliners.

Rouhani, though, is a very smart operator. He does not want a Parliament mired in reformist agitprop. He knows any reform in Iran will be slow and gradual. That’s the essence of a pragmatist/centrist agenda.

At the same time, it helps a lot that the nuclear deal was supported en masse by Iranian elites. Take the case of Ali Larijani – a pragmatic conservative – who was head of the Majlis for two years and did a sterling job fending off the anti-nuclear deal hardliners.

Larijani is being elected as a representative of Qom. He was heavily supported by the closest Iran has at the moment in the form of a political/military superstar: Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who’s heading the Iranian forces in Syria.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, for his part, has played his role of vigilant arbiter to perfection, saluting the success of the elections while at same time warning against “a superficial progress without independence nor national integrity.”

So all seems to be on track for Iran to get all the foreign investment it needs; to reemerge as the top geopolitical power in Southwest Asia; to progressively advance on Eurasian integration, alongside Russia, China and Central Asia; and to fulfill what Iranians across the spectrum want: a better quality of life, better access to technology (which includes high-speed internet), peace with their neighbors (which include defeating ISIS/ISIL/Daesh), and the respect long due to a benign, stabilizing power, heirs of a great civilization.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.