THE BLOG
07/18/2016 01:09 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2017

The Obama Administration Gambled On Tehran's Moderation -- And Failed

By Saeed Ghasseminejad and Emanuele Ottolenghi

A year ago, the Obama administration made a gamble, striking a nuclear accord with Tehran that it hoped would transform its behavior, leading to a thaw in bilateral relations and a more stable Middle East. In the administration's telling, the agreement would help loosen hardliners' grip on power in favor of more moderate forces. Now, one year after the nuclear deal, the sad truth is unavoidable: the very opposite has occurred, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to consolidate his hold over Iranian politics.

Those in Washington charmed by the hope of a new Iran believed that its parliamentary elections this year, the first after the nuclear deal, would turn the tables on Khamenei and strengthen the hand of the relatively more pragmatic president Hassan Rouhani. However, when Ali Larijani and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati were selected speaker of parliament and chairman of the Assembly of Experts respectively, this optimism quickly morphed into disappointment.

These same optimists should have known that in the Islamic Republic, the ballot box cannot deliver substantive change. In the past, the regime reacted to popular discontent with violence, undermining any chance for reform. But since 2009, when the regime nearly lost control of popular protests against fraudulent presidential elections, it has conducted its political maneuverings with heightened sophistication.

This year's ballots for parliament and the Assembly of Experts are a prime example. The regime confronted an inconvenient choice: either let reformists sweep back into power or face a repetition of the 2009 unrest. It cleverly chose a third course, disqualifying the most inconvenient candidates for both bodies in advance of voting.

Western commentators cheered the relative electoral success of groups loosely linked to Rouhani without realizing that the only way they could even field candidates was by coopting hardliners to their own ticket. When viewed in that light, the results become a clear disappointment for those who believed change was possible in Tehran through the ballot box.

Instead, the government took further measures to ensure that future elections are effectively meaningless. First, it strengthened the Guardian Council - which vets all political candidates and laws for ideological purity - by granting it the ability to disqualify sitting parliamentarians. Half of the Council's members are chosen by the supreme leader, and the other half chosen by the leader's appointed judiciary chief, so bolstering its power effectively ensured that parliament will fall into line with the leader's diktats. Soon after the elections, the Council used this new power to disqualify a newly elected member of the pro-Rouhani coalition because her hijab was deemed insufficiently modest.

Both Rouhani and parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani challenged her disqualification, but to no avail. Instead, Khamenei seized the opportunity to test a newly created body, the Supreme Council for Dispute Resolution, bypassing the Expediency Council - the institution that for decades has resolved conflicts between the Guardian Council and parliament. The Expediency Council is headed by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the relatively pragmatic politician and ex-president who is a Khamenei rival. Predictably, the new council affirmed the decision to disqualify the MP. In one fell swoop, Khamenei weakened his adversaries and neutralized parliament - one of the two elected branches of government that, as a semi-democratic state organ, could theoretically act as a vehicle for peaceful reform.

Time and again, Khamenei has modified Iran's political system to strengthen his own power. In theory, he welcomes the public's participation in elections. In practice, he manipulates the system to forestall any effort at substantive change. His latest maneuvers illustrate an uncomfortable but unavoidable fact: after the nuclear deal, even more than before, the Islamic Republic remains firmly in the hands of the hardliners.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Saeed Ghasseminejad is an Associate Fellow.