Last week, more than 30 million Iranians went to the polls to elect two key government bodies: the Majlis (parliament), which will legislate the country’s administrative laws, and the Assembly of Experts, which will be charged with selecting its next supreme leader when and if the sometimes-discreet-sometimes-confrontational Ali Khamenei, who has held the position since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, retires or dies. (There have been unconfirmed rumors that he is gravely ill.)
Although the final results of that election have yet to be announced — initial reports indicate a landslide victory for the moderates and reformists in Tehran, but overwhelming support for hardliners throughout the rest of the country — what does seem clear is that the elections will be a key test of the U.S.-brokered Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to ensure that Iran’s nuclear capabilities are limited to peaceful ambitions, thus — in theory anyway — making the world a safer place.
As he enters his last year in office, U.S. President Barack Obama has gambled heavily with his remaining political capital in favor of courting and cajoling Tehran like a prodigal son in the hopes of bringing it back into the fold of the community of nations.
But will that gamble pay off?
So far, Tehran has played along with the reformed-child scenario, alternately touting its commitment to global peace and licking its wounds after its long-awaited vindication for ever having been accused of having sinister nuclear ambitions.
During his national day reception at his residence late last month, Iranian Ambassador to Mexico Jalal Kalantari echoed the spiel of his president Hassan Rouhani, promising to keep to the deal, stressing that Iran has never had anything but peaceful goals for its uranium enrichment program.
“The celebration of the 37th anniversary of the victory of the Islamic revolution coincides with the fulfilment of Iran’s agreement with the world powers called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and with the end of the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),” Kalantari said.
Kalantari went on to say that, after decades of economic sanctions (brought on by the taking of the U.S. Embassy in 1979, after the fall of the U.S.-backed regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), Iran had at last “proven to the world that it has been honest with the IAEA and that it has only peaceful intentions regarding its nuclear development.”
He added that Iran is open to dialogue with the international community in order to resolve differences and that Iran considers regional peace and stability as a major priority, playing up his government’s role as a Middle East peacekeeper and enemy of terrorism.
“We hope that the governments in the region as well as all countries in the world are willing to take coherent and joint actions against terrorism and violent extremism,” he said.
Can Iran be trusted to keep its end of the bargain?
Even Obama seemed reluctant to commit to that one.
“Whether it’s supporting terrorist groups like Hezbollah, continued threats directed at Israel, human rights abuses or the unjust detention of American citizens, I understand exactly the kind of dangerous and repressive regime we’re dealing with in Iran,” he told a British journalist after the JCPOA was signed last year.
And Obama admitted that while there will be sporadic IAEA inspections, a deal is in large part based on mutual trust, which, for good reason afgter 37 years reciprocal animosity, is in short supply.
President Rouhani has so far been exceedingly conciliatory toward the West (and the promise of increased economic growth as a result of the removal of sanctions is certainly a big incentive for that change of stripes).
Increased trade and a seat at the non-pariah table of nations in the world arena are certainly attractive carrots for Iran to give up its confrontational ways.
But the West should also remember to keep a stick handy just in case.
The election results may well be an early indicator of which means of tempering Tehran is best.
Regardless of what happens in the Majlis, the Assembly of Experts is expected to remain staunchly conservative, making real rapprochement with the West difficult if not impossible.
The parliamentary elections, on the other hand, could swing Iran’s international policy mood either way.
Moreover, the Majlis’ influence (which controls the state budget and rubber-stamped government appointments) in external affairs is debatable, since the supreme leader is exactly that — the last voice when it comes to how the country will deal with international issues.
So is the world any safer today than it was before the Iran nuclear deal?
Maybe, maybe not. The jury is still out, as are the final election results, and it seems only time — and an occasional IAEA inspection — will tell.