Iran Parliamentary Elections Show that Trump Shouldn’t Have Been so Quick to Dismiss the Nuclear Deal

In his ‘major’ foreign policy speech at Washington, D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel on April 27, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called the Iran nuclear deal “disastrous,” saying that the U.S. negotiators undermined their own position by refusing to show that they were “willing to leave the table.” Speaking to AIPAC in March, Trump said that his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Yet recently, Iran held runoff parliamentary elections, the outcome of which supports the Obama administration’s view that the nuclear deal, which Iran has thus far complied with, would empower moderate elements in Iran at the expense of hardliners.

Iran held first round parliamentary elections in February and runoff contests on April 29 to determine the winners of seats for which no candidate received 25% of the vote on the initial ballot. Early returns from the runoff suggest that moderate allies of President Rouhani have won roughly 42% of seats in Iran’s 290-seat parliament, with independents and conservatives splitting the remainder. More women than clerics were elected and it is the first time since 2004 that conservatives do not hold a parliamentary majority.

There are a few caveats: the elections excluded thousands of would-be candidates, mostly reformists; in Iran, moderate does not necessarily equal pro-Western or liberal by Western standards; and the Iranian parliament has limited authority. However, the election is viewed as a “referendum” on the nuclear deal and on President Rouhani’s decision to engage with the United States and its European allies. Given the choice between hardliners and relative moderates, Iranians voted for moderates; they voted for those candidates who are willing to consider a more open, globally integrated future for the country.

This is what President Obama had in mind in late 2014 when he said that there was an opportunity to use the nuclear deal to “open the aperture with respect to Iran.” In addition to restraining Iran’s nuclear program, the deal would help to create the conditions for more productive U.S.-Iranian relations. As Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus Leslie Gelb has commented, “such strategic openings are the very stuff of diplomacy, the real basis for reducing conflict and danger between nations.” It has been only three months since ‘Implementation Day’ and it is already clear that many challenges lay ahead. Iran has conducted ballistic missile tests that are not technically in contradiction with the nuclear deal, but violate the spirit of the agreement. Moreover, Iran’s central bank governor has threatened that the nuclear deal could break up “under its own terms” if the West does not do more to allow Iran access to international banking services.

Yet Iran’s parliamentary elections and its compliance with the nuclear deal thus far show that the hope of empowering moderates is still very much alive. It also confirms that it is far too early for Donald Trump or others to write off the agreement. In analyzing first round election results, Iran expert Karim Sadjapour noted that the Cedar Revolution and the Arab Spring show that it is not “wise to declare victory in the first quarter.” That is true, but it is also unwise to concede defeat so early in the game.


Michael Goldfien is a Campaigns Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and has an MA in International Policy Studies from Stanford University. His research interests are in international relations, diplomacy, and the U.S. foreign policymaking process.

Originally published in The Huffington Post.

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Charged Affairs is a publication of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Views of the authors do not necessarily represent the views of the organization. All rights reserved.

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