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This Time It's Different: Iranian Elections Are an Opportunity for Change

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 9/03/2016 Kaveh Mirani
IRAN ELECTION © Scott Peterson via Getty Images IRAN ELECTION

On Friday Feb 26, 2016, the Iranian people spoke, and did so very loudly. Thirty-six years after the founding of the Islamic Republic, Iranians have opted for a peaceful and gradual change of their outdated theocracy. Iranians went to the polls to elect 290 members of the parliament (Majlis) and 88 members of a body known as the Assembly of Experts -- whose sole responsibility is to elect the next Supreme Leader.
There was a strong nationwide turnout of 62% despite severe restrictions imposed by the hardliners. 99% of reformist candidates for the parliamentary election were initially rejected by the Guardian Council, though many were added back on to the roles after maneuvering from Iranian President Rouhani and his allies, Aided by high participation, the reformist coalition (known as the Omid, or Hope, coalition) managed a strong showing, sweeping all of the 30 Tehran seats and performing well in other major urban areas. Moreover, the reformists were also able to deny re-election of two of the most ultra conservative members for the Assembly of Experts. Overall, the reformists and their allies will be in a much stronger position in the new parliament. The country is still an Islamic Republic, but today it is much less Islamic and more of a republic. And that is the will of the people.
The concept of an Islamic republic was the brainchild of its founder Ayatollah Khomeini, who published his concept from exile in 1970 under the title of "Velayat-e-faghih" or governance of the "jurist." This little known document later became the foundation of a system of government that is an odd hybrid of theocracy and democracy, enshrined in the Islamic Republic's constitution after it was approved in a national referendum in December of 1979. This formed Iran's political system - or "Nizam" - and the nation is still governed by this constitutional framework. For the regime, it is a raison d'être and a proof of legitimacy. For many Iranians, it is an outdated system that nonetheless offers the opportunity for limited, but genuine political participation. This odd and yet competitive tug of war has shaped Iranian politics for more than three and a half decades, with the balance of power shifting from one side to another depending on the internal and external forces in play.
The February elections clearly underscored the fact that Iranian society wants decisive, yet peaceful change. Iranians diligently followed the Arab Spring and noted its dismal consequences - civil wars, dictatorships and utter chaos. Their own experiment in 2009 with street protests against the rigged presidential election ended with brutal repression and clampdowns on civil liberties and social freedom.
Last week's elections were a major victory for the forces of reform and change in Iran. In a way, the election was a vote of confidence for the pragmatic President Rouhani and the seminal nuclear deal with the P5+1 last year. With the nuclear deal in hand, the people showed that they now demand action on the other promises of the Rouhani government: economic prosperity, easing of social pressures and respect for individual freedoms. The question is whether or not the government can leverage its political victory into action. There have been many false starts and disappointments on these issues in the past two decades. The one certain thing is that the entrenched hardline factions of the regime will use all the means at their disposal to scuttle the reformists. Nevertheless, this time it may be different: the popular wave is stronger than ever, President Rouhani is a canny operator, and success could breed success.
Undoubtedly, the US and the West have a major stake in the success of a reformist movement in Iran, both tactically and strategically. So, what can and should be done to support Iranian civil society? Clearly, any kind of direct support or intervention would be counterproductive and unwelcome. They would only play into the hands of the most hardline elements in the country who seem obsessed with the specter of a "velvet revolution." Yet, there are two areas in which the United States can help. The first would be to promote people-to people exchanges by easing visa requirements and promoting academic, cultural and athletic exchanges. In this regard, an important step would be to reverse the discriminatory visa legislation, HR158, which unfairly targets people of Iranian origin and those traveling to Iran. The second would be to encourage business and economic exchanges between US companies and the legitimate Iranian private sector by waiving sanctions and facilitating financial transactions.
Iranian society, the most pro-Western in the region, has demonstrated its political maturity and its thirst for freedom and inclusion. The nuclear deal has provided a means for Iranians to end their international isolation, and the February elections have offered an opening for reformist forces. The United States and its allies should not turn their back on the Iranian people.
Kaveh Mirani is an entrepreneur and Karim Pakravan is an academic in Chicago. Both are Iranian-American and members of the Board of the National Iranian American Council

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