epa05181635 An Iranian woman has her ID checked, before casting her vote in the parliamentary and Experts Assembly election at a polling station at Ershad Mosque in Tehran, Iran, 26 February 2016. Voting began in Iran's parliamentary elections, which mark the first test of the political mood since Iran's nuclear deal with major powers reached in July. More than 4,800 candidates are running for 290 seats. Voters were also electing the 88 members of the Assembly of Experts, the body that selects a supreme leader, who is Iran's head of state, and monitors his work. Almost 55 million people are eligible to vote including 8.5 million in the capital Tehran. EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH
An Iranian woman has her ID checked before casting her vote © EPA

In Iran, it is the Islamists in the Islamic Republic who are supposed to be in charge. Yet despite the theocrats’ vigilant efforts to weed out their reformist opponents, the republican institutions keep striking back.

Preliminary results from Friday’s elections show emphatic support for Hassan Rouhani, the moderate president who wants to use the historic nuclear deal Iran sealed last year with six world powers to open his hitherto pariah state to the world — and offer its young citizens a horizon of greater opportunity and freedom.

Reformist-backed candidates, including moderate conservatives, seem to have beaten hardliners in all 30 parliamentary seats in the capital Tehran, while Mr Rouhani and centrist former president Hashemi Rafsanjani lead the poll there for the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body likely to have to choose a successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader at the apex of the Islamic Republic.

The Guardian Council, an appointed body of clerics and jurists that vets candidates for elected office and laws passed by parliament, had cast a baleful shadow over these polls, disqualifying thousands of reformist hopefuls.

The vested interests built up after the 1979 Islamic revolution learnt a lesson from the popular upsurge that carried Mohammad Khatami into the presidency in 1997 — more an avalanche than a landslide — and their need to suppress violently the Green Movement in 2009, after protests against the allegedly rigged re-election of hardline populist president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.

The theocratic institutions — from the Guardians to the supreme leader — and their enforcers such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have been the lords of Iran’s labyrinthine politics. Yet they know from bitter experience the country’s republican institutions can take on a life of their own — when Iran’s voters will it.

The tactics of the reformist camp were to crowd out the hardliners by sheer numbers. By registering thousands of candidates, they ensured at least scores would survive — alongside disaffected moderate conservatives. They argued that a vote in these circumstances was valuable and vital. Iranian voters agreed.

Mr Rouhani, up for re-election next year, was jubilant. “The competition is over. It’s time to open a new chapter in Iran’s economic development based on domestic abilities and international opportunities”, he said. “The people showed their power once again and gave more credibility and strength to their elected government”.

Results from the rest of Iran will not be as one-sided as in the capital. But the hardliners have lost their lock-hold on parliament. Mr Rouhani is now better placed to reconnect the country to international markets and investors, deliver on pledges to reform an economy distorted by years of sanctions, and perhaps even offer Iranians — more than half of them under 30 — freer lives and the chance of a decent livelihood.

But fierce battles lie ahead. The IRGC, for example, the backbone of the regime and allied to Ayatollah Khamenei, feared Mr Rouhani and the nuclear agreement was the start of a slippery slope to regime change. Its problem was that the supreme leader backed the deal, but it will fight hard to keep its tentacular business empire.

Yet control can be elusive, even in an ostensible theocracy.

The contest for the Assembly of Experts, for instance, is normally about as compelling as a mullahs’ version of inside baseball. Not this time. Because its members serve for eight years, and Ayatollah Khamenei is 76 and thought to be ailing, they may well have to select his successor — a watershed in Iran’s future.

The results so far suggest two of the assembly’s most intransigent reactionaries — Mohammad Yazdi, its current chairman, and Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, a leading light in the discredited Ahmadi-Nejad camp — have lost their seats. As important, the debate so far has opened up the possibility the assembly may choose a council rather than an all-powerful supreme leader to replace Ayatollah Khamenei.

Former president Khatami and other reformists failed in part because in their loyalty to the Islamic Republic they were unwilling to challenge the core idea of the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (Wilayat al-Faqih) of the first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It is just possible Mr Rouhani will not need to.

david.gardner@ft.com

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