TEHRAN, Iran—Iranian voters dealt hard-liners a serious blow in elections for parliament and an influential clerical body, favoring reformists and relative moderates who support last year’s nuclear deal in the country’s first elections since the landmark agreement, results released Monday showed.
Reformists, who favor expanded social freedoms and engagement with the West, won at least 85 seats, according to final results released by the Interior Ministry and broadcast on state TV. Moderate conservatives—who split with the hard-line camp and support the nuclear deal—won 73, giving the two blocs together a majority over hard-liners in the 290-seat assembly.
The vote isn’t expected to herald large-scale change in Iranian policies, but may make it easier for President Hassan Rouhani to deliver in areas such as promoting social freedoms and reforming the economy.
Hard-liners won just 68 seats, down from 112 in the current parliament. Five seats will go to religious minorities, and the remaining 59 will be decided in a runoff, likely to be held in April.
While none of the country’s three main political camps will dominate the next parliament, reformists and moderate conservatives are expected to work together—at least on economic issues.
That should make the assembly less hostile to Rouhani, a moderate elected in 2013 on pledges to relax restrictions on freedom of expression and improve ties with the West.
“Rouhani will face a friendly parliament,” said Ali Reza Khamesian, the campaign manager for top reformist vote getter Mohammad Reza Aref. Khamesian said the president could count on parliament’s support to drive through economic reforms and expand social freedoms.
“Getting parliamentary approval to lift restrictions on women attending male sports stadiums and providing greater protection for women’s rights will be among the measures” Rouhani can achieve, he said.
At least 12 women have already been elected to parliament, including Fatemeh Hosseini, a 30-year old business administration expert, and six others will compete in the runoff vote. A win by three in the second round would make for the biggest female parliamentary presence in Iran’s history.
“As a young woman, I ran to inspire women and give them courage to fight for their rights. I ran to play my role in the destiny of the country and stop extremists from capturing seats in parliament,” Hosseini said.
U.S. officials had expressed hope that last year’s landmark agreement, which lifted international sanctions in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear activities, might pave the way for greater cooperation with Tehran on other regional issues. The strong showing by reformists and other relative moderates makes that more likely.
“The … election was a referendum on Rouhani, and the vote came back ‘yes,'” said analyst Cliff Kupchan of the New York-based Eurasia Group. “He and his government are now stronger, and the president will have more ballast to pursue political and economic reform if he so desires.”
Still, the parliament vote isn’t expected to herald large-scale change in Iranian foreign policy, and it’s extremely unlikely that the winners will propose structural reforms to reduce the role of Islam in government or law. The condition for them to run in the election was to remain loyal to the principles of the Islamic Republic.
Moderates also won a 59 percent majority in the Assembly of Experts, an 88-member body which will choose the successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been Iran’s top decision-maker since 1989. The 76-year-old underwent prostate surgery in 2014, leading to renewed speculation about the state of his health.
Rouhani and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, both considered moderates, retained their seats in the assembly.
However, several prominent hard-liners, including Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, were also re-elected. Jannati is the leader of the Guardian Council, an unelected, constitutional watchdog that vets election candidates, and has been a leading opponent of democratic reforms.
He has also led efforts to disqualify reformist candidates. Out of 3,000 reformists who applied to run in this year’s elections, just 200 made it through the vetting process.
The Assembly of Experts is elected every eight years. Moderates previously held around 20 seats in the assembly.
Perhaps the most surprising result of the election was the loss of seats in the Assembly of Experts by two prominent hard-liners: Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the current head of the assembly, and Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, considered the spiritual leader of hard-liners.
Rouhani and his allies likely benefited from last month’s implementation of the nuclear agreement, which lifted crippling sanctions that had been tightened since 2012.
But analysts said the election results were also driven by domestic factors, including lingering anger at President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani’s hard-line predecessor.
“Hard-liners were defeated because most of their candidates were Ahmadinejad loyalists, annoying their former allies,” said Abbas Abdi, a political analyst aligned with the reformist camp.
Ahmadinejad repeatedly clashed with the West over his dramatic expansion of the nuclear program, his questioning of the scale of the Holocaust and his predictions of Israel’s demise. His policies led many conservatives to break with hard-liners, and the moderate conservatives’ support for the nuclear talks and subsequent agreement widened the rift.
“We trusted hard-liners but the result was not positive,” said Tehran resident Azadeh Yusefi. “There were lots of embezzlements and mismanagement. So, I felt another group should come and take over the parliament and that new things needed to happen. I’m very optimistic.”
Some politicians previously seen as hard-liners, including outgoing parliament speaker Ali Larijani, are now considered to be moderate conservatives who by and large support Rouhani’s government and the nuclear deal.
Iranian analyst Saeed Leilaz said Rouhani has convinced powerful institutions within the ruling system that serious changes are needed to lift Iran’s isolation and shore up its economy, which has suffered from years of sanctions.
“In addition to fellow reformists, moderate conservatives will be an asset for Rouhani to pursue his domestic agenda, including social and economic reforms,” he said.
“A friendlier parliament will also help Rouhani pursue his policy of constructive engagement with the West without the same degree of hostility he faced in the outgoing parliament,” he said.
Reformists last rose to power in 1997 with the election of President Mohammad Khatami and secured a majority in parliament three years later. But the pendulum soon swung back toward hard-liners, who dominated Iranian politics from 2004 until Rouhani’s election nearly three years ago.
Khamenei, who makes all final decisions on major policies, insists he is above the political fray. But the supreme leader remains deeply suspicious of the West and has warned that too much openness to Western influence could dilute the country’s Islamic values.
Washington and Tehran severed diplomatic relations after Iran’s 1979 revolution. They remain deeply divided on a host of regional issues, including Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, which are committed to Israel’s destruction.