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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Analysis: Iranian Elections: Much Ado about Nothing



The fix is already in for this month’s Iranian elections. On Feb. 26, Iran will choose a new parliament (Majlis) as well as a new Assembly of Experts (AE)—a clerical body similar to the Vatican’s Council of Cardinals that will select any successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But the unelected Guardian Council (GC) that is controlled by the supreme leader is responsible for vetting all candidates, and it has already sidelined virtually anyone who might challenge him. The likely result will be a Majlis solidly behind Khamenei’s policies of aggressive expansionism in the Middle East, active hostility to the United States and Israel, and unrelenting internal repression. Moreover, Khamenei acolytes will almost certainly augment their current two-thirds majority in the new AE, assuring that a hardline cleric allied with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) eventually succeeds the 76-year-old supreme leader.   The Myth of Free Elections and Political Parties in Iran

Some apologists for the Iranian regime claim that its theocratic elements—above all, an appointed clerical supreme leader who serves for life—are offset by popular ones, such as free elections of the president, the Majlis, and the AE. In fact, most elections in Iran are technically free, with little blatant vote rigging. But they are not fair: the GC, under the supreme leader’s sway, vets all candidates for ideological suitability and loyalty to theocratic rule. Only rarely—most notably in the presidential election of 2009, when the GC inadvertently permitted several popular reformist candidates to run—does the regime resort to wholesale electoral fraud.


Iranian parties likewise differ radically from western ones. They are loose parliamentary factions without significant grass-roots organization that coalesce and dissociate at the whims of a handful of political leaders. All must acknowledge the supremacy of the supreme leader and the inviolability of the “system,” as Iranians themselves term it. Leading advocates of incremental change within the system (most notably the reformists in 2009) remain under house arrest, leaving today only two loose factions: hardline conservatives unconditionally loyal to the supreme leader who control most state institutions; and, slightly more pragmatic conservatives identified with President Hassan Rouhani’s push for a marginally more open society and economy.   Keeping Everything under Control

The supreme leader is using the GC to try to pack the next Majlis and AE with loyal hardliners, while permitting the election a sprinkling of politicians linked to Rouhani, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and current Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani. In fact, the GC has wielded its electoral axe more savagely this year than at any time in the Islamic Republic’s 37 year history: • In its initial round of vetting, the GC disqualified over 60% of 12,123 prospective Majlis candidates and almost 75% of 800 would-be AE members. In the last parliamentary elections (2012), the GC only invalidated 34% of prospective Majlis candidates.  • The GC approved only 1% of 3,000 reformist Majlis candidates and appears to have shut out most aspiring Rouhani backers from the next parliament. It has also banned 50 sitting Majlis members who are mostly pro-Rouhani from seeking reelection. • The GC rejected the candidacies of many prominent leaders suspected of disloyalty to Khamenei or of having an independent political base, including Hassan Khomeini—grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic—and both the son and daughter of former President Rafsanjani.  After Rouhani and his allies complained to the GC about the severity of the vetting the Council permitted about a third (1500) of the disqualified Majlis candidates to run. It is unclear, however, how many of these are Rouhani supporters with a reasonable prospect of victory. Moreover, even with these 1500 additions the number of candidates excluded from running remains the highest, both proportionally and in absolute terms, in the Islamic Republic’s history. Most importantly, the GC has not reversed its drastic winnowing of aspirants to serve on the AE, which unlike the largely toothless Majlis will play a significant role in choosing the next supreme leader.   More of the Same

The supreme leader‘s electoral management fits neatly into his overall strategy of using sanctions relief from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to jump-start the economy while maintaining strict internal control, perpetuating Tehran’s anti-Israel and anti-American foreign policy stances, and keeping “Western infiltration” out of Iranian society and culture. Khamenei likely wants to nip in the bud any notion that Tehran’s agreement to put its nuclear program on hold—if only for a few years—portends either internal liberalization or détente with the West. In addition to heavy-handed electoral vetting, Tehran has taken many other retrograde steps since signing the JCPOA: Iran has reaffirmed its proxy war against the United States and its regional allies (Israel, but also Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates) by dispatching an elite IRGC unit to defend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, testing ballistic missiles in defiance of a UNSC resolution, publicly humiliating U.S. seamen and honoring their captors, and overflying U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. Khamenei has further soured political relations with the West by stepping up public holocaust denial and scheduling another “Holocaust Cartoon and Caricature” contest.  A renewed crackdown on foreigners and violators of the regime’s moral strictures is sending a chilling message to would-be dissidents: a filmmaker got 6 years in prison and 200 lashes for “ignoring sanctities,” two poets were whipped for publicly kissing and shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, and an Iranian-American businessman was imprisoned without charges. Iran’s electoral system is not quite as tightly run as those of Assad’s Syria or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; there is a slim chance that reversals by the GC of disqualified candidates may allow more pro-Rouhani candidates for parliament to win, enabling the president to maintain or slightly improve his legislative support. But even this would not put the so-called “moderates” in the driving seat: the powers of Iran’s supreme leader are so extensive, and those of the Majlis and presidency so weak, that even following the Majlis elections of 2000—in which then-reformist President Mohammad Khatami won a solid parliamentary majority—Khamenei skillfully manipulated the judiciary and security services quashing Khatami’s reforms and eroding his authority. In the Iran of the Ayatollahs, the more things change, the more they remain the same.


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