Iran's elections: Why you should care

Iran: Reformists poised to win parliamentary seats
Iran: Reformists poised to win parliamentary seats

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Story highlights

  • For the first time, Iranians go to the polls to elect members to two important bodies at once
  • Iran's parliament and Assembly of Experts exert large influence over nation's affairs
  • Vote could help decide future of Iran's relations with the West

(CNN)Iran has been in the news a lot lately. The nuclear agreement has been implemented, prisoners have been freed, sanctions lifted. All is right with the world, and Iran is on track to becoming a friend of the West, right?

Not so fast.
Iran held elections Friday, and while many pro-reform candidates who might support President Hassan Rouhani and his more moderate agenda were disqualified from participating, those who did stand looked poised to start reshaping the country -- as of Monday, reformists looked set to take all 30 seats up for grabs in the capital, Tehran, the country's Interior Ministry says.
Results from outside the capital also indicated a strong showing by moderate candidates in the high-stakes election, which could shape the future of the country and its relationship with the West.
Final results will be declared Tuesday.
Here's are some things to look out for:

What makes these elections different?

For the first time, Iranians will vote to elect two important government bodies at the same time: lawmakers to the parliament and members to the Assembly of Experts. Results of both have serious consequences.

How so?

Well, the parliament passes laws, and it approves the national budget. So, much like Britain's Parliament or the U.S. Congress, it controls the purse strings. That purse is set to get much fuller, given that economic sanctions have been lifted as part of the nuclear deal. If Iranians see a tangible benefit to reformist policies, they could vote to preserve those policies.

And the Assembly of Experts?

This is actually a more important race. The Assembly of Experts chooses the supreme leader. And in Iran, the real power doesn't lie with the president but with the supreme leader. The man who holds that title, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is in his mid 70s and is rumored to be ill. Given that, each political group wants to be represented on the assembly in case Khamenei dies before the next election. They want to have a say on who the next supreme leader will be.

How does it concern anyone outside Iran?

The outcome could determine the future of Iran's relationship with the West. If more centrists or reformists win in either election, we could see continued progress in that relationship. More reformists in parliament means more support for Rouhani, and more reformists in the Assembly of Experts could mean a more moderate next supreme leader.
A more open Iran also would be a more positive force in the region, said Adel Abdel Ghafar, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Doha Center. Long term, it could also mean that Iran wouldn't be in interested in prolonged conflicts in the region, such as in Syria, among other things.
However, if more hard-liners are elected, relations could regress back to stalemate days, putting in jeopardy much of the recent progress -- such as the nuclear agreement.
Bottom line: Both reformers and hard-liners believe the election to be "a referendum on the revolution's future direction," according to Katayoun Kishi, a research assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

So who's expected to win?

Candidates only have a week to campaign, so it's safe to say that an established politician will be more likely to win than someone unknown to voters. Another factor -- many reformist and centrist candidates have been prevented from running.

Who's doing that?

A 12-member group called the Guardian Council -- half of whom are appointed by the supreme leader. They vet candidates for all Iranian elections, says Alireza Nader, a senior international policy analyst with Rand Corp. They have a vested interest in who runs and who wins.

Why are they doing that?

The conservatives are desperate and on the defensive, according to Abdel Ghafar of the Brookings Doha Center. They're going to do whatever they can to retain power, including disqualifying candidates they think might jeopardize the religious nature of the Islamic republic and open the door to greater U.S. influence. Candidates who are secular or who've sided with reformist or centrist policies in the past will most likely be disqualified.

Does this mean that reformists can't win?

Not necessarily. Iranian politics aren't that monolithic. Elections in Iran are instead vibrant affairs, at least by Middle Eastern standards -- marked by fiercely competitive factions, heated arguments and a tough press.
Reformists have done a great job mobilizing supporters and expect a high turnout, says Farideh Farhi, an independent scholar and expert on Iranian elections. There's also a greater sense of optimism in the country, Abdel Ghafar said. Both agree these developments favor reformers.
Rouhani has criticized the disqualification of reform-minded candidates.

What's the impact on the current president?

Rouhani, who campaigned on a reformist platform before his 2013 election, has a lot riding on this round of voting. Conservatives have long controlled the levers of power in Iran, but a more reform-minded parliament could help Rouhani loosen restrictions on society and the press, according to Kishi, the U.S. Institute of Peace researcher.
It could also help him pursue greater engagement with regional governments and the United States, according to Kishi.
He needs to deliver in ways that satisfy Iranian voters. Presidential elections are scheduled for next year.