On Friday, Iranians went to the polls to cast their votes in two crucial electoral contests. The first was to appoint representatives to the country's unicameral legislature, commonly known as the majles. The second was to select officials for the Assembly of Experts, the powerful clerical body that oversees the performance of the country's top religious authority, its Supreme Leader.
The dominant narrative now circulating in the press is that the outcome is a resounding victory for Iran's "moderates," who managed to successfully rout the country's hard-liners and reclaim the initiative after years on the political margins. But the election results are actually far less than meet the eye, for a host of reasons.
The electoral fix was in from the outset. Earlier this year, Iranian authorities disqualified the vast majority of reformist and progressive candidates from standing for either election. All told, more than 6,000 candidates who initially registered for the majles elections were ruled out by the country's Guardian Council, and reformists represented less than 1% of the 6,000 or so hopefuls who remained. Similarly, Iranian authorities disqualified 640 of the 801 original candidates for the Assembly of Experts.
In other words, Iranian voters made their selection strictly from a carefully curated list of officially sanctioned candidates. It's no wonder that watchdog groups like Human Rights Watch have concluded that the "serious structural problems" inherent in Iran's electoral system cumulatively "undermine free and fair elections."
Those "reformists" aren't all that moderate. The ranks of those ultimately selected to populate the 290 seats of the majles and the 88 seats of the Assembly of Experts are filled with more than a few radicals. They include former Intelligence Ministers Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi and Mohammad Reyshahri, both of whom are widely suspected of perpetrating murders and disappearances during their times in office, and Ali Razini, the chief prosecutor of Iran's Revolutionary Court, which supervises all political executions in the Islamic Republic. A string of other, lesser known candidates nonetheless have similarly hardline pedigrees.
Their inclusion isn't an accident. It is, rather, an inevitable function of the political horse-trading that took place ahead of the polls, as the various "lists" of candidates scrambled to put together a winning ticket after the mass exclusion of real progressives. As a result, many of Iran's hardliners have just been given a new lease on political life, albeit under a different ideological moniker.
The electoral results simply reinforce a pro-regime consensus. Inevitably, Friday's election was a referendum of sorts on the recent nuclear deal hammered out between Iran and the P5+1 nations. Judging by the support garnered by president Hassan Rouhani and his political allies, Iran's populace is broadly supportive of the agreement and its material benefits.
None of this, however, means Iranians are becoming more pro-Western. In fact, seven months after the signing of the new nuclear deal, anti-Western attitudes in Iran are as prevalent as ever (as a new survey of Iranian public opinion conducted by the University of Maryland eloquently lays out). This puts the lie to the idea, propounded by the agreement's boosters, that the nuclear deal would inevitably prompt a fundamental "reset" of relations between Tehran and the West.
Where the deal has had an impact, however, is in the standing of the Iranian regime itself. The agreement, with its extensive economic benefits for the Islamic Republic, has strengthened the once rickety political standing of Iran's ayatollahs, and given the appearance that they have managed to outmaneuver the West. Which helps to explain why Iran's politicians, regardless of political stripe, toed an increasingly nationalist line ahead of the elections.
All this makes the outcome of Friday's polls far less consequential than news reports – or the authorities in Tehran – would have us believe. Unfortunately for the Iranians, and for us, the future is bound to bring far more ideological continuity than meaningful change in the Islamic Republic.