Iranian voters head to the polls Friday for the first elections since last year’s nuclear agreement. They will choose members of the next parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a body of religious clerics tasked with picking the next supreme leader in the event that the current one steps down or dies.
It is tempting to view the upcoming elections as a referendum on the foreign policy agenda advanced by the politically moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who led his country through diplomatic negotiations with the international community over its nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars of sanctions relief. The outcome of Friday’s vote will determine the political makeup of the legislative body Rouhani will contend with for the remainder of his presidency. It is also likely that members of the next Assembly of Experts, who serve eight-year terms, will be the people involved in choosing a successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is 76 years old and reportedly in deteriorating health.
But the election is unlikely to change much in Iran, in part because democratically elected political bodies in Iran are controlled, to some extent, by unelected leaders who overwhelmingly align with Khamenei and his conservative politics.
Once a candidate registers to run for a seat in the Majlis or Assembly of Experts, he or she must be approved by the Guardian Council. Half of the council's 12 members are hand-picked by the supreme leader. Reformist political leaders said that of the 3,000 candidates they put forward in December, only 30 of them were approved to run. Rouhani pushed back against the mass disqualifications, and early this month the Guardian Council reversed its decision for 1,500 candidates -- although it’s unclear how many of those people are political moderates or reformists.
Some Western observers interpreted the mass disqualifications as an indication that Iran’s hardliners were effectively purging their political enemies and fixing the outcome of the elections.
Elections, they do matter in a limited way in Iran. But really ... Iran has a kind of hybrid system of elected and unelected bodies ... and those elected bodies are all subservient to the unelected bodies. Kayvon Afshari
Ebrahim Mohseni, an expert on public opinion in Iran who holds positions at the University of Tehran and the University of Maryland, says this is an exaggeration. “Absolutely everyone can register. You don’t need to collect any signatures, you don’t need to make any deposit. You can just wake up in the morning and say, ‘I want to be president today, or I want to be in the Parliament,'" he said. This year, over 12,000 people registered to run for Parliament, more than double the number of people in the previous election.
“You can imagine that a lot of these people are basically no-name people. Nobody knows them,” Mohseni added, noting that candidates with conservative politics were also deemed ineligible to run. In a poll that has not yet been released, Mohseni said an overwhelming majority of Iranians could not name a single candidate who had been disqualified from running in the parliamentary elections.
Absolutely everyone can register ... You can just wake up in the morning and say, ‘I want to be President today, or I want to be in the Parliament. Ebrahim Mohseni
The mass disqualifications are partially a continued response to the Green Movement, protests launched in 2009 contesting the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections, said Kayvon Afshari, the communications director at the American Iranian Council.
“The security establishment in Iran really learned their lesson after that,” he said, explaining that the goal was to make Iranians feel like they have a vote, but also eliminate candidates who conservatives don't like and minimize opportunities for displays of public dissent.
“I think this is going to be a very controlled process," Afshari said.
The Guardian Council even more tightly restricts candidacy for the Assembly of Experts, requiring prospects to take a test demonstrating religious knowledge. Mohseni compared it to the College of Cardinals, the body that selects the Pope. Women have been excluded from serving on the Assembly of Experts, though 16 women registered, despite knowing they would not be selected. Just 166 of the 801 hopefuls were allowed to run for a spot in Friday’s election.
The most publicized disqualification is that of Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader. Religious hardliners accused Hassan Khomeini, who is thought to be close to moderate politicians, of lacking the clerical knowledge to run. At the same time, former President Ayatolah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who once served as an adviser to Khomeini but broke with hardliners in 2009 by refusing to condemn the Green Movement protesters, was cleared to run this year.
Public polling and historical precedence suggest that political moderates and reformists allied with Rouhani are coming into the elections with an advantage. A poll released last month by the University of Maryland’s Center for International & Security studies shows that 82 percent of Iranians have a favorable view of the current president, and 59 percent would like to see the parliament composed of his supporters.
It also does not appear that reform-minded voters will boycott the elections en masse in order to protest the disqualification of some of their candidates. Sixty-seven percent of respondents to the same poll said they were "very likely" to vote in the parliamentary election. This poll was conducted before the mass disqualifications were announced, so it is possible that voter enthusiasm could have dropped since then.
Iranian studies expert Dr. Houchang Chehabi says it is likely that reformist voters will prefer to participate in what they may feel is a somewhat rigged process than sit the election out entirely.
“This time, there are enough people who will say there are conservatives who are somewhat rational and others who are totally irrational -- and we’re better off with rational conservatives who will can make deals with the president, as opposed to those who will just sabotage him all the time.” said Chehabi, who was born in Tehran but now teaches international relations at Boston University.
Afshari, who lives in the U.S., cited his young, educated family member as an example of one of many Iranians who plans to vote despite having reservations about the process.
“Many of them are not necessarily in favor of the Islamic Republic, and so they face a dilemma at an individual level, in so far as casting a vote seems to them like they’re giving approval of the system," he said. "And so they think, ‘Well, ok, if we don’t vote, maybe it’s like a form of silent protest.’ But then that also removes them from any form of the political process whatsoever."
Former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who is banned from appearing in Iranian media because of his past support for Green Movement, released a YouTube video calling on people to vote for members on the “List of Hope,” a group of reformist and centrist candidates headed by his former vice president, Mohammad Reza Aref. Aref was a presidential candidate in 2013, but stepped aside to allow for Rouhani's election.
Even if moderate and reformist politicians succeed in Friday’s elections, the vote is not necessarily a bellwether of rapid change in Iran’s foreign or domestic policy. “Elections, they do matter in a limited way in Iran -- but really, in the final analysis, Iran has a kind of hybrid system of elected and unelected bodies,” said Afshari. “And those elected bodies are all subservient to the unelected bodies. So, that is to say they are subservient to the supreme leader’s office, to the Guardian Council, and even to the Revolutionary Guards.” Afshari cited Khatami’s presidency as an example of a time when Iran had an overwhelmingly reformist president and parliament, but was still unable to implement major reforms.
There’s already evidence of this dynamic. Since Rouhani secured the nuclear agreement, hardliners have arrested two American citizens, and publicized degrading photographs of the 10 Navy sailors it briefly detained.
“The hardliners allowed the president to conduct foreign policy on this particular [nuclear] issue in exchange for keeping control of domestic politics,” said Chehabi. “There was hope, of course, that there might be a kind of dynamic that is unleashed by the success of the negotiations and that the president might be rewarded -- but obviously, that wasn’t the case.”