Two highly important nationwide elections will be held in Iran on February 26. They are for the Majlis [parliament] and the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader and can, at least theoretically, fire him as well. The Majlis has 290 seats, five of which are reserved for religious minorities. The Assembly has 88 members. The Majlis deputies are elected for a four-year term, whereas members of the Assembly serve for eight years.
Elections in Iran are not democratic and involve several stages. First, the candidates declare their candidacy and register with the Ministry of Interior. Next, the Ministry forms throughout the nation what are called local “executive councils”, whose task is to check the qualifications and backgrounds of the candidates. Those that pass the councils’ background check move to the next stage in which the Guardian Council, a constitutional body that vets the candidates for almost all the elections, investigates their qualifications. Those that are accepted by the Guardian Council run in the elections.
After the fraudulent presidential elections of 2009, Iran’s “deep state” – the secret and semi-secret networks of hardliners in the security, intelligence and the judicial apparatus who supposedly support the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – banned the two major political organisations of the reformists, Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Organisation of Islamic Revolution Mojahedin.
Ever since, the reformists have been determined to make a political comeback. Thus, a large number of them registered with the Ministry of Interior to run in the elections this year. Since the executive councils are currently run by the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by the moderate Hassan Rouhani administration, most candidates passed the first checks. Indeed, over 12,100 had registered to compete for the 290 Majlis seats, and the councils accepted the candidacy of over 93% of them.
The acceptance of the vast majority of the candidates by the executive councils angered Iran’s deep state. Khamenei and the deep state know that the reformists and moderates could easily win by a landslide in any truly competitive elections. Eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency – one of the darkest periods in Iran’s contemporary history, during which corruption, mismanagement of the economy, inflation and unemployment were rampant – left no credibility for the hardliners. The crippling economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and its allies almost broke the back of Iran’s economy.
The deep state is also terrified by President Rouhani’s high popularity in the aftermath of the nuclear accord signed between Iran and the P5+1 and the recent lifting of the economic sanctions.
Thus, the deep state went to work. Mohammad Hossein Nejat, deputy chief for cultural and social affairs of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), declared on January 14 that the executive councils should have disqualified a large number of the candidates, and because they did not, “The Guardian Council must do the job.” Other IRGC officers warned against allowing the candidates of “sedition” – the name the hardliners use to refer to the Green Movement – to run in the elections. These warnings were widely interpreted as the deep state’s message to the Guardian Council to disqualify the reformist and moderate candidates from running. Even Nejatollah Ebrahimian, the Council’s spokesman, criticised such a large number of disqualified candidates, and strongly criticised Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-hardline cleric and Secretary-General of the Guardian Council.
The Guardian Council did not disappoint its masters. In its preliminary report in late January it accepted only 42% of the candidates. Out of 3,000 reformist candidates exactly 1% – 30 candidates – were declared qualified. A large number of moderate conservatives were also rejected. By contrast, practically all the hardline candidates that are in fact the public face of the deep state were deemed qualified by the Guardian Council. After much debate, protests by President Rouhani and by practically every stratum of the society, public anger and calls for boycotting the elections, the Guardian Council relented somewhat and accepted 55% of the candidates. But, once again, none of the leading reformists or even their second-tier candidates has been allowed to run.
In some sense the elections for the Assembly of Experts are even more important than those for the Majles. The reason is Khamenei’s health and the question of his successor. Although there have been rumours for years that Khamenei, 76, has cancer and may pass away soon, there is now credible evidence that he may indeed die some time during the next term of the Assembly. He underwent prostate surgery in September 2014. In a speech to the IRGC officer corps in September in 2015, Khamenei suggested that he may not be around much longer, saying Iran’s enemies “are waiting for a time when the nation and system fall asleep, for example in ten years when I may not be here.” Thus, the deep state is trying to ensure that the Assembly will remain under its tight control, when the time comes to select Khamenei’s successor.
Over 800 candidates registered with the Ministry of the Interior to compete for the 88 seats of the Assembly. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who has increasingly allied himself with the reformists and moderates, former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and President Rouhani encouraged their younger allies to run for the Assembly’s elections. In particular, Hassan Khomeini, 44, a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, who is an ally of the moderates decided to run.
The reformists and moderates were hoping to present to the public a list of their 16 candidates for the Assembly for the province of Teheran, with Rouhani, Rafsanjani and Hassan Khomeini heading the list. They were hoping that if the time for selecting Khamenei’s successor arrives, they would be able to influence the selection process. But, the Guardian Council announced on February 10 that it accepted the qualifications of only 161 candidates. There will be no competition in at least six districts, as there is only one candidate for such districts. In particular, the Guardian Council rejected the young Khomeini.
The next move by leaders of the reformists, moderates and allied groups has been to encourage the public not to despair and to vote in vast numbers, giving lesser-known reformists and moderates a better chance of getting elected. The hope is that the majority of the ultra-hardliners can be expelled from the Majlis, so that the next parliament will be more supportive of the Rouhani Administration.
The reformists also hope that Rafsanjani and Rouhani will receive the highest number of votes for the Assembly, hence embarrassing Khamenei, the deep state, and their supporters. In the last elections for the Assembly, in the fall of 2006, Rafsanjani received the highest number of votes.
Iran’s upcoming elections are simply another facet of the long-running struggle between the deep state, which wishes to keep its hold on the country through repression and economic domination, and the reformists, moderates and other democratic groups. The outcome of the elections is important not only to Iran’s future, but also to the future of the Middle East, as it will either strengthen the Rouhani Administration or tighten the deep state’s grip on Iran.
Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science at the University of Southern California, is the editor and publisher of the website Iran News and Middle East Reports, and has been analysing Iran’s political developments and its nuclear program for two decades. Reprinted from The National Interest (nationalinterest.org), © National Interest, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.
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