12:30 pm EST - 2:00 pm EST

Past Event

Iran’s Elections and Their Implications for U.S. Policy

Monday, November 20, 2006

12:30 pm - 2:00 pm EST

The Brookings Institution
Falk Auditorium

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

The Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted Hadi Semati, Visiting Fellow with the Saban Center and Assistant Professor at Tehran University, and Daniel Brumberg, an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University and a Special Advisor to the United States Institute of Peace, for a policy luncheon discussion on Iranian domestic politics.

Semati began by noting that, although the upcoming elections are not expected to have important strategic impact on the country in general, the Iranian people tend to consider these events important because local electoral campaigns normally affect the lives of ordinary citizens. Semati explained the functions of the Assembly of Experts and municipalities, and said that the main function of the Assembly of Experts, a congressional body of 86 Ayatollahs, is to select the Supreme Leader and supervise his activities to ensure they comply with his duties as outlined in the Constitution. Semati said that, although the Assembly does not have a direct influence on Iranian politics, it does have the potential for such an impact because of its important supervisory function over the Supreme Ayatollah. In practical terms, Semati said that the municipalities exert more influence, in the sense that they control resource and budget allocation processes and can affect local mobilization.

Semati said that, in recent years, the elections to the Assembly of Experts has become a non-competitive exercise. He cited the fact that only two candidates are running for the election on December 15. In municipal elections, on the other hand, the three main factions—the reformists, mainstream conservatives, and radical conservatives—will have an opportunity to compete. In fact, some of the prominent reformists remain on the ballot and therefore, Semati argued, there is the potential for a reformist comeback in Tehran despite reformists’ ongoing struggle against the institutions of power that try to prevent them from enjoying equal representation and participation in the elections.

Semati said the upcoming elections are significant in three ways. First, the elections will be a test for the reformists’ viability and will answer the question of whether or not the reformists will be able to return to politics and unite various reformist factions into a coalition. Second, the upcoming elections will be a testing ground for the conservatives’ ability to sustain their momentum and will reveal whether or not they will be able to survive and consolidate their power in the years before the presidential elections. Lastly, the turnout for the elections will indicate if the Iranian public has a genuine interest in domestic politics. Samati said that for these reasons the elections were expected to have a psychological rather than practical impact on Iranian politics, its various factions, and the public in general.

Semati argued that the elections would most likely not have a significant impact on Ahmadinejad’s domestic policies in the short-run. In the long-run, however, he said some changes could occur because the president’s policies are not sustainable. In particular, Semati said that Ahmadinejad’s strategy of creating divisions within and fighting among Iranian political factions has failed to institutionalize and consolidate his political base.

Brumberg said that the two central issues in Iran’s domestic affairs are the struggle over economic policies and the president’s domestic populist agenda. Brumberg said that, although Ahmadinejad appears to be winning the current economic debate, his economic policies and his spending plans, in particular, are not sustainable in the long-run. The president’s domestic agenda, on the other hand, is negatively affecting Iran’s foreign policy. Brumberg said that some of the president’s public remarks that make him popular in Iran, including the president’s antagonistic remarks directed at Israel, are hurting the bargaining position of Iranian diplomats.

Brumberg said that both municipal elections and the elections to the Assembly of Experts are important because they enable the maintenance of a certain level of political balance that has been undermined by Ahmadinejad’s strategy of excluding reformists from politics. He said that the exclusion of a significant political force, such as the reformists, could lead to the polarization of Iranian politics and potentially destabilize the country.

The position of the reformists, he said, is further weakened by the fact that the Supreme Leader is incapable of affecting the political balance because of his dependence on the Assembly of Experts, which wields the power to disqualify him. Therefore, the elections can at least create an atmosphere that would allow recalibration of the political system.

Following the presentation, a question was raised about the potential impact on Iranian politics of two possible U.S. strategies. The first would involve engagement of Iran, if the Baker-Hamilton Commission puts forth such a recommendation, while the other would involve imposing sanctions against Iran, which the U.S., U.K., and Germany are considering currently. Semati said that by imposing sanctions on Iran, the US and the European countries would weaken the position of domestic Iranian politicians who favor engagement. On the other hand, by engaging Iran, the U.S. and Europe must expect a measured response from Iran that would be contingent upon certain conditions, such as limiting the inspections of nuclear facilities, among other possible concessions. Commenting on the same question, Brumberg said that before imposing sanctions it was important to articulate a plan for them, as poorly planned sanctions could generate antagonism without creating a good lever against Iran.

A question was asked about how Ahmadinejad’s economic policies could affect his domestic standing. Brumberg said that, in line with his populist agenda, Ahmadinejad’s economic strategy is directed at making the public happy in the short-term, rather than building a sound base for Iran’s long-term economic development. He said it is difficult to predict when an economic crisis would hit Iran, but that if it did, it would hit hard. Although Iran’s economy is vulnerable, Brumberg said that a crisis is not imminent. Therefore, it is unlikely that economic vulnerability will weaken Ahmadinejad’s standing in the near future.