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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Iran’s Elections: A Vote for Change Brings Continuity

“The structure of Iran’s ruling system is such that no political faction can change the main policies rooted in its core principles. The people’s vote is limited to the responsibility they have been given in the constitution.” - Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of Kayhan, an Iranian newspaper closely associated with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei


The results of last month’s elections show that many Iranians hunger for change. Polls indicated that voters’ top concern then was the feeble economy and—especially in Tehran—they backed candidates whom they considered to be opposed to the regime’s most hardline elements. The result in a real democracy would have been a new government; in Iran, where elections serve mainly as window-dressing for an authoritarian theocratic system, politics will continue almost as if nothing had happened. Why is the press narrative—that “moderates” and “reformists” won big and will bring about real change—so false?

  • Because all elections in Iran are contests within a small elite pledged to support unelected, lifetime Supreme Leader Khamenei. The Guardian Council (GC), beholden to the Supreme Leader, permits only members of this elite to run. So-called moderates, reformists, and hardliners argue about policy details but agree that the Islamic Republic’s main mission is to resist the nefarious influence of the United States, Europe, and Israel.  Because this election was even less free and fair than most. The GC vetoed so many candidates for both parliament and the clerical Assembly of Experts (AOE) that more pragmatic factions had to augment their lists with figures closely associated with the hardliners and frequently responsible—as in the case of two former Intelligence Ministers—for some of the regime’s most egregious human rights violations. Because neither the parliament nor the AOE have much power. The Supreme Leader and the President do not depend on a formal majority in the legislature, which is subordinate to unelected institutions such as the GC, the judiciary, and the IRGC. The AOE, which in theory will choose the next Supreme Leader, is in reality a facade behind which the system’s real powerbrokers—the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and a handful of senior clerics—will decide the succession.

A Win-Win for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani

Although 59 of 290 parliament seats will not be allocated until a run-off in late April, pundits are already analyzing how the new factional groupings are supposedly changing the balance of power in both the legislature and the AOE. However, the alleged victory of so-called reformists and moderates in both bodies masks a deeper truth: the elections have strengthened Iran’s real governing axis, the alliance between Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rouhani.

The Supreme Leader quickly lauded the results, boasting that Iranians “showed the bright and powerful face of a religious democracy to the world.” The relatively high participation rate (62 percent) and the illusion of political change have polished the regime’s veneer of legitimacy and popularity, while leaving the Supreme Leader free to pursue his policies of expanding Iran’s regional military reach and holding the line against cultural “infiltration” from the “decadent” West.

Khamenei may indeed be pleased at the shellacking received by some so-called “hardliners,” because many of them were closely tied to former President Ahmadinejad, who feuded with the Supreme Leader during his second term in office. Rouhani was similarly exuberant regarding the elections, tweeting, “Kudos to the history-making nation of Iran. Let’s open a new chapter based on domestic talents & global opportunities.” He and his longtime mentor, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, won seats in the AOE, and the lessened weight of hardliners in parliament may help the government to pass the laws and regulations required to open up the post-sanctions Iranian economy to greater foreign trade and investment. Rouhani’s Minister of Economics, for example, was nearly impeached in the last parliament due to the initiative of three hardline members, none of whom retained their seats in the new legislature.

Guns over Butter

Although some of these changes may facilitate Rouhani’s plans to privatize and liberalize the economy and thus—over time—improve Iranians’ standard of living, the Khamenei/Rouhani team will still prioritize guns over butter. Much of Iran’s frozen funds (thawed as a result of the nuclear agreement) will likely go into the coffers of the IRGC and the regular military. Tehran is already discussing with Moscow the purchase of Sukhoi Su-30 Flanker fighters and T-90 battle tanks as it upgrades its military forces following the nuclear deal. Foreign Minister Zarif has pledged publicly that Iran will push ahead with its missile program. And Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen, along with thousands of Hezbollah and other foreign Shia fighters they have trained and equipped, have made substantial territorial gains over the past month in Syria and are poised to recapture Aleppo for the Assad regime.

The election results also underscore Iran’s plans to maintain its military onslaughts throughout the Middle East. Just before the elections the powerful Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, broke with his hardline faction and, although running as an independent, made common cause with lists linked to Rouhani and Rafsanjani. Many analysts signaled this shift as a sign that Iran was “moderating” its foreign and domestic policies. Larijani may remain Speaker when the new parliament convenes, and will certainly continue as a political mover and shaker. His role as a force for moderation, however, is doubtful. Qassem Suleimani is the Major General who heads IRGC’s Qods Force (which the United States lists as a terrorist organization) and directs Tehran’s intervention in Iraq and Syria and its ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. On the eve of the elections he publicly underscored his faith in the Speaker, praising Larijani as “one of the most effective individuals regarding regional developments [who has] always been a supporter of the Qods Force.” With “moderates” like Larijani in their pockets, Rouhani and Khamenei have no need for hardliners!

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