Shaping the Middle East to become more peaceful may seem a daunting ordeal but not when its people are allowed to speak. In a Feb. 26 election that was really more of a plebiscite, voters in Iran sent a clear message to their controlling clerics. They want Iran to be open to the world, not self-isolating by threatening other countries or barring foreign investment.
Here’s what Iranian voters were up against to send that message. The regime had rigged the list of approved candidates so that only a minority of those running could be considered relative moderates. And state TV was biased in support of hard-line candidates loyal to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his nonelected power centers. Yet despite the stunted democracy, voters were able to triple the number of reformist members in parliament. More important, reformers took a majority in the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with selecting the next supreme leader.
Voters also defeated many hard-line candidates opposed to last July’s nuclear agreement that lifted most sanctions on Iran. Overall, the election results boosted the political strength of President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist who won the 2013 election with the support of moderates and who wants to open the economy and create jobs. Nearly two-thirds of Iranians are under age 30 and have no memory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
How did reformers achieve this victory, especially with the regime’s ban on most social media?
They mobilized popular support using a Russian-designed messaging application called Telegram, an encrypted platform used by at least 20 million of Iran’s 77 million people. Activists were forced into operating in cyberspace after a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2009 following a highly rigged election. “We act within the system,” said Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president and a reformist candidate, at one campaign rally.
The regime’s conservatives still hold much of the power in Iran, but their legitimacy has now been badly tarnished. Rather than resort to street demonstrations, reformist voters were able to outsmart the regime by using the limited competition within a constrained electoral system. During the campaign, former President Mohammad Khatami, a leading reformer barred from state media, posted a video on Telegram urging Iranians to vote for “those who care for reforms, improvement, progress in the country as well as the removal of threats and limitations.”
If this election leads to a less threatening Iran, it may be remembered as a historic marker for a peaceful Middle East.