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What's the model for change in Iranian politics? Be patient.

Finding the patterns

President Hassan Rouhani's bloc won a decisive election victory last month but any change will likely be incremental, to the frustration of reformers. 

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    Iranians voted in key elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts in the Hosseiniyeh Ershad mosque in Tehran, Iran, on Feb. 26, 2016.
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Hamid Sadeghi stood in line to vote in east Tehran, taking young people to task for their disillusion over Iran’s slow pace of change, and vowing that – as a man who loves the 1979 Islamic revolution – his ballot would help speed improvements.

A clothing manufacturer with gray stubble, Mr. Sadeghi voted in the Feb. 26 election for allies of President Hassan Rouhani, hoping to boost the president’s agenda of greater outreach to the West and looser social restrictions at home. Like many of those who turned out to vote for Mr. Rouhani’s camp – and against the hard-liners’ grip on power – he had high hopes.

“During these years of Mr. Rouhani, lots of things have changed, and lots toward reform,” he says. “God-willing, if pro-Rouhani candidates come to parliament, progress will happen.”

Many of these voters want it all: An instant revival of Iran’s economy; an end to its diplomatic isolation; and enhanced personal freedoms and a vibrant civil society. They are likely to be partially disappointed – in terms of timeline, at least – despite the electoral success for Rouhani’s side.

While Rouhani now has a revitalized mandate and faces a less hostile parliament, hard-line elements that fear any opening – and have successfully blocked such change for nearly two decades – still hold many cards. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes all final decisions on affairs of state, and is backed by a conservative deep-state apparatus that includes the deep-pocketed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which runs a parallel foreign policy in conflict zones like Syria and Iraq.  

To prevail with his agenda, analysts say, Rouhani will have to continue a middle path, making gradual adjustments that may anger his reformist supporters, yet may succeed where previous reform-minded leaders failed to make change stick.

Alongside electing a new parliament, Iranians also voted in a new Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that will choose the next supreme leader. Iran’s key revolutionary leaders are in their 70s and 80s, adding a critical dimension to the country's future path.

“The next 10 years is going to be very important in Iran, because of the change in generation,” says Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, a sociologist at Tehran University who edited a string of reformist newspapers in the late 1990s that were shut down. 

That change, combined with Rouhani’s insider credentials and vow to “end extremism” by plotting a middle, moderate course, will completely alter the political battlefield in Iran a decade from now, he says. 

Though Rouhani’s statements are sometimes at odds with those of Mr. Khamenei, the centrist cleric often meets the leader to “discuss and negotiate, and try to struggle with words,” says Mr. Jalaeipour – a departure from previous presidents who were not trusted by Khamenei. “We don’t have any other way than reform, and it’s better than anything high risk.” 

A second step toward change

That was the calculation on Feb. 26, when a majority of voters sought to dilute the power of hard-liners, both in parliament and the Assembly of Experts.

Leaders of a reformist-moderate coalition portrayed this election as a second step toward change, after the first step of electing Rouhani in 2013. Since then, the president concluded last year’s landmark nuclear deal with the US and other world powers, which led to the lifting or suspension of onerous economic sanctions.

Some concrete changes are obvious: There are fewer morality police on the streets, tourism has surged – including for American tour groups – and a handful of US and European students have arrived. And while the economy has picked up and inflation is down, it has not come fast enough for many. 

And many other problems remain: One of those American students was imprisoned for 41 days, accused of trying to overthrow the regime; at least two Iranian-American dual citizens remain in jail; and Rouhani has so far been prevented from fulfilling his campaign promise – seen by many reformists as a key test of his clout – to release from house arrest two former presidential candidates held since post-election protests in 2009.

Added to this, for months Khamenei has warned about “infiltrators” and cultural “soft war” intrusions from the US and the West. His rhetoric is a direct riposte to President Obama, who argued that the nuclear deal would pave the way for a more accommodating Iran.

“The concern of the leader is penetration – making a kind of velvet revolution or psychological war – that changes the minds of the people, and it [his concern] is rational,” says Amir Mohebian, a conservative editor and analyst with close ties to all political factions.

“Imagine yourself as the leader. He has some supporters who are ready to give their lives for him and his ideology. On the other side are reformists.”

He adds: “If there is a crisis, who will defend the revolution? The same people who are fighting [Islamic State] in Syria” – a reference to the IRGC’s Qods Force and various Shiite volunteers who see their ultimate mission as protecting Iran and its Islamic Republic.

While of critical value to Khamenei for that reason, says Mohebian, such ideologues should not be given free rein in domestic politics. “The leader should save these people for the country. But they should be managed,” he says. 

How Khatami went too fast

For Iranians who want sweeping change, the definitive experience was the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, from 1997 to 2005. For a time, politics and newspapers flourished as freely as did expectations of irreversible change.

But for hard-line clerics, including the supreme leader, and politicians and militants at their disposal, it was too much, too fast. Violent attacks on student and reformist meetings and newspaper offices halted Khatami’s agenda and paved the way for Khatami’s successor, the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Analysts say that Rouhani learned that lesson and is acting to avoid the same mistake.

“The ruling system – Mr. Khamenei – is not optimistic about reformists, because whenever they have a chance, they attack him directly,” says an analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named. “So first of all, Rouhani has to reassure the leader.”

The nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions was Rouhani’s first priority, she says. But his failure to deliver on social and political change quickly enough has left many disappointed.

“So now reform can happen in society, but slowly, because Iranian society can mobilize easily,” says the analyst. “It’s a problem for every government, because even a small protest [by either side of the political divide] can become a very big one, very quickly … we should have patience.” 

For many Iranians, the smooth passing of the election and the results were in themselves a reassuring sign. Many were distrustful after the scarring post-election violence in 2009 and a 2012 parliamentary vote stacked in favor of hard-liners that many reformers chose to boycott.

“Diplomacy-wise the nuclear deal was a big achievement,” says Sadeghi, the clothing manufacturer. “But the economy needs time; you can’t declare it improved in six months or one year.”

At an exquisitely tiled Tehran mosque, a clean-shaven young man cast a nighttime ballot. “I am so proud of my people,” he says, as swarms of Iranians sat on the floor to handwrite their ballots, and stood in long lines to vote on the sidewalk outside. “They are always active in an event like this." 

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