Iran elected reformers. Will that change relations with the West?

Reformists win big in Iran election
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Story highlights

  • Opponents of the nuclear deal are claiming the Obama administration hasn't done enough to hold Iran's feet to the fire
  • The administration says it is being very aggressive in monitoring compliance with the nuclear deal

Washington (CNN)Iran's reformers claimed election victories this week, but the preliminary outcome shows no signs of quieting the raging debate over Iranian intentions in the aftermath of the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Critics of the deal and the Obama administration's role in brokering it have seized on Iran's aggressive action in recent months to argue that the nuclear agreement has only deepened the regime's more antagonistic tendencies.
    They quickly criticized the election results -- which have yet to be finalized -- as a fig leaf over the true nature of the regime, which they claim is left unchanged by a vote in which many of the most moderate candidates were disqualified from running.
    "Some candidates in today's elections may be called moderates, but don't be fooled. The regime made sure voters were forced to choose, as some have said, 'between hard-liners or hard hard-liners,'" said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican, in a statement. "It was a rigged game, and the Iranian people -- and in turn U.S. national security interests -- were destined to lose from the start."
    The administration has so far remained mostly mum on the contest, declining to respond publicly until the results are fully tabulated.
    But one official expressed limited optimism that the results could be helpful down the road if not in the near term.
    "Medium to long-term, the election results could have a benefit, but in the short term we should not be at all surprised to see some knee-jerk reactions, just as you saw a knee-jerk reaction" to the nuclear deal reached in July by Iranian hard-liners, said one official who spoke anonymously to discuss administration thinking.
    Even some of the White House's opponents on the nuclear deal saw positive signs in Friday's vote.
    "Am I glad that more moderate people, it would appear, are elected? Yes. I really am," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, was quoted as saying in The Washington Post. "The question is, will having more moderate people involved just put a more moderate face on Iran, or are policies going to change?"

    Concern about Iranian moves

    Since the deal curbing Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief was reached in July, critics have pointed to a series of actions that they argue demonstrate that Iran won't be moderating any time soon, however.
    They cite two ballistic tests that violated U.N. Security Council resolutions, missiles tested close to a U.S. Navy ship, the daylong detention and blindfolding of American sailors and the arrest of an 80-year-old American-Iranian citizen after completing a prisoner swap with the United States, as well as Tehran's continued support for an insurgency in Yemen, militias in Iraq and for a Syrian regime that has killed thousands of its own people.
    They also don't see much change as a result of the nationwide vote, especially since hard-liners kept out so many moderates hoping to run in last week's parliamentary and Assembly of Experts races.
    "The forces of darkness remain pretty firmly entrenched," said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We shouldn't underestimate the Iranian population's will for change or underestimate the means of the Iranian regime to crush change seekers."
    Opponents of the nuclear deal are claiming the Obama administration hasn't done enough to hold Iran's feet to the fire since the deal and is too willing to excuse bad behavior.
    "We have the ability to be far more aggressive against the Iranians on those things that we care about," Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, told Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped broker the nuclear deal, last Tuesday during a Capitol Hill hearing.
    He added, "Why is it that we aren't being far more aggressive with the tools that we have?"
    The administration has used multiple kinds of sanctions against Iran, targeting its arms, shipping, banking, nuclear and oil industries, effectively locking Iran out of the international financial system. It has also targeted individual Iranian officials for human rights abuses.

    Kerry defends U.S. reaction

    Kerry argued that the administration continues to take strong action.
    "That's why we left in place the sanctions on human rights, the sanctions on arms, the sanctions on missiles, the sanctions on a state sponsor of terror," Kerry said. "We are being more than vigilant, actually."
    The administration says it is being very aggressive in monitoring compliance with the nuclear deal and offer, as one example, sanctions slapped in mid-January on three companies and eight people involved in Iran's ballistic missile program.
    Menendez charged that the administration wasn't confronting Iran because of "this desire to try to create the space for the moderates inside of Iran."
    But U.S. officials said they expected some disruption as Iran's hard-liners push back against the nuclear deal and the resulting increase in contacts with the West, as well as the election results.
    And the administration official who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity acknowledged that Iranian hard-liners haven't modified their behavior at this point.
    But he added that observers had to evaluate whether any of the recent confrontations posed a serious danger to American interests, noting that the sailors were quickly released and the rocket was fired away from the USS Truman, not toward it.
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    Mark Dubowitz, a sanctions expert with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, however, said he thinks Iranian activity is worsening.
    "Compared to the regime of a year or two ago, it's increased its aggressive behavior," he said, arguing that the administration is so fearful of losing the Iran deal that it is unwilling to hit back.
    "It's the same old regime acting the same old way, but now they have constrained American options," Dubowitz said.
    Dubowitz said he believes U.S. fears that Iran will renege on the nuclear deal is stopping them from targeting Iran's dangerous behavior -- especially since the U.S. imposing sanctions could be seized on by Tehran, rightly or wrongly, as the U.S. itself abrogating the pact.

    Iran rakes in new income

    Dubowitz added that now that sanctions have been lifted and international investment is flowing in, Iran has more money to cause mischief.
    But James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told Congress on February 25 that while Iran still backs groups like the Lebanese militant organization Hezbollah, for the most part the new money flowing in is being used to prop up the economy.
    Money isn't a game-changer or motivator for Iran anyway, according to Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute.
    "The idea that money is going to change much, I don't buy it for a second," he said, pointing out that Tehran increased its involvement in Syria "exactly when it was most broke."
    The nuclear deal was seen by many as a platform on which to build new relationships with Iran, but the country's power structure means there's a limit to how much that diplomatic success will translate into an accommodation on Syria or moderation within Iran, analysts said.
    The Iranian people "have consistently voted for politicians who want to put their national and economic interests before ideology," said Sadjadpour.
    But, he continued, "in the aftermath of the nuclear deal, the Revolutionary Guards have wanted to make it clear to the United States and their own people that the nuclear compromise wasn't a reflection of a weakness."
    And whether or not the United States is holding Iran accountable, perceptions in the Middle East can matter more than the reality -- and many American allies don't believe the Obama administration is being tough enough.
    U.S. allies have repeatedly expressed concerns that Iran's long-term ambitions in the region aren't being checked, Vatanka said.
    "We can dismiss these fears, call them baseless, but the U.S. cannot afford to ignore them," said Vatanka, who attributed Saudi Arabia's military intervention in the civil war in Yemen -- where the Riyadh-allied regime has been attacked by Iran-backed reberls -- in part to concerns the United States wouldn't act on its behalf there.
    "The Saudis are in Yemen today because they sense they are on their own and that the U.S. does not care about their threat perceptions," he said.
    "The same is true for the Israelis, the Emiratis, the Turks and other pro-U.S. allies," he added. "The U.S. needs to make it clear to Iran that a nuclear agreement is not a pass for Iran to pursue its agenda against America's existing allies."
    Acknowledging that Iran is still engaged in destabilizing activity, Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration is "extremely focused" on helping allies, adding billions of dollars and new arms sales so they can "push back against Iranian activities."