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Next month’s Iranian elections will tell us a lot about the future of the country

While Iran’s not exactly a democracy, its politics are diverse and free-wheeling.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waving during a news conference in Tehran, Iran, on Sunday.

Even if progress stopped tomorrow, the fact that the nuclear agreement with Iran has gone into effect is already a big deal. If Iranian President Hassan Rouhani can find a way to build off of it to forge broader changes inside of Iran, it could turn out to be even bigger. 

For starters, it’s worth paying attention to how Iran conducts elections that will be held late next month. 

One doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – starry-eyed about what has happened so far. Yes, Iran has shipped 98 percent of its enriched uranium out of the country, dismantled centrifuges and mothballed a reactor capable of producing plutonium. Yes, many sanctions have been lifted and Iran is quickly being reconnected to the global economy and financial system. Most important, yes, military action seems to be off the table — at least for the time being.

But if Iran’s leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, find it useful now to downplay differences with the United States that goes only so far.

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The Revolutionary Guards and other bastions of the conservative, anti-U.S. establishment haven’t exactly disappeared.

For the foreseeable future, relations between Iran and much of the rest of the world, including the U.S., will be largely transactional. Areas of cooperation such as the release of U.S. sailors last week or the prisoner swap that accompanied formal implementation of the nuclear agreement will be offset by Iran’s support of Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Assad, its missile program and many other deep differences.

The U.S. still considers Iran to be a sponsor of terrorism, and many other U.S. sanctions remain in effect. The Obama administration is under pressure (and seems inclined, anyway) to keep the screws on the Iranians. So it imposed some new, limited sanctions to punish Iran for its missile tests, which violate U.N. resolutions. 

Iran now gets access to an estimated $100 billion stashed offshore, it will increase oil and gas exports, and open its doors for badly needed investment. It’s already buying a lot of new passenger planes and looking for oil markets in India and Europe. But it’s not as if Iranians think all their problems are over.

The deal comes into effect, of course, as global oil prices are plummeting. They fell Monday to below $30 a barrel. So, even though Iran plans to quickly increase production by half a million barrels a day, each barrel will be worth a lot less than when the deal was being negotiated. 

Reporting from inside Iran suggests that a lot of people who have struggled for years with a weak economy are skeptical that they’ll see huge improvements.

That brings us to the elections. While Iran’s not exactly a democracy, its politics are quite diverse and free-wheeling.  

Rouhani was elected in 2013 on a promise to improve the economy, and he is touting the nuclear agreement as a huge step toward doing just that. He appeared to race to meet Iran’s obligations to get the sanctions lifted so his allies could benefit in the Feb. 26 election from a bump in support. Beyond that, he himself faces reelection in two years.

He has to try to build up as much enthusiasm as he can among those weary and doubtful voters. Down the road, he’ll have to show some results. And he’ll have to try to counter the pushback that is certain to come from the conservative establishment. 

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Iran actually will have two elections at the end of February. One is for the Majlis, its 290-member parliament. A second body called the Assembly of Experts, which is composed of 86 senior clerics, is also up for election. That group is important because among its duties is selection and monitoring of the supreme leader. Khamenei is in his late 70s, and is said to be ailing. So within its new eight-year term, the Assembly of Experts elected next month may choose Khamenei’s successor.

Candidates for both of those bodies must be vetted by a third group, the 12-member Council of Guardians, which regularly plays politics with the process. Prominent reformers in particular are often disqualified from running.

There already are some reformers and moderates in the Assembly of Experts. Among the new candidates this time is none other than Hassan Khomeini, the 43-year-old grandson of the founder of the Islamic state. This younger Khomeini appears to have the conservatives a bit worried – although it might be hard to disqualify him because of his famous name, he is thought to be close to Rouhani. Even if there are far from a majority, reformers in the Assembly of Experts could find themselves becoming kingmakers if and when it comes time to choose a new leader.

Although the parliament has limited power, analysts also expect elections to be hard fought, and for moderates and reforms to have a decent shot at winning a majority. That would help Rouhani build support for the deeper reforms he says the economy needs.

Iran’s conservative clergy and military will remain powerful for a long time to come. Regardless of who runs it, the country will pursue a number of policies that the U.S. adamantly opposes. But if Rouhani can demonstrate a hunger for change and is lucky enough to have a few key allies in important posts, Iran might find itself edging slowly away from habitual confrontation to become a more-or-less normal member of the global community.