Iran’s Parliamentary Election

Feb 21, 2020 | AIJAC staff

Electoral posters and a banner featuring Qasem Soleimani in Tehran. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images
Electoral posters and a banner featuring Qasem Soleimani in Tehran. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Update from AIJAC

02/20 #03

This Update analyses the Iranian legislative election taking place today, and assesses its international significance.

A good general summary of what is going on in this election and what to look for in the results comes from American Iran analyst Behnam Ben Taleblu. He says this election will almost certainly lead to a narrowing of the political spectrum in Iran, with most reformist barred from participating by the unelected Guardian Council. He goes on to note that the only real question to look at in the result will be turnout, with the regime pushing participation as a “religious duty” in hopes that a high turnout will bolster the regime’s claim to legitimacy at home and abroad. For Taleblu’s backgrounder, CLICK HERE.

Next, offering a similar overall analysis but some more depth is Washington Institute Iranian politics expert Mehdi Khalaji. Khalaji agrees that hardliners have effectively rigged the result and that the regime is nonetheless hoping for a large turnout so it can claim it has broad popular support. But he also makes some other important points, including that the regime is now trying to use nationalism, and not just religion, as an answer to widespread popular unrest; that the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, has been largely emptied of autonomy and power by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and that the US and its allies have an opportunity to challenge the regime by amplifying the many voices of Iranians calling out its corruption and abuses. For Khalaji’s in-depth discussion of what is really going on with these parliamentary elections,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, on a somewhat separate note, Seth Frantzman takes on a policy claim increasingly being made about Iran in the US presidential election campaign, particularly among the Democratic party primary candidates. This is the assertion that the problems with Iran should be handled via “diplomacy” or “bringing people together to negotiate” – often with the claim that this is what former US President Barack Obama did. Frantzman makes a strong case that, first of all, diplomacy almost never takes place in a vacuum, but as one part of a holistic foreign policy, and secondly, that there is little possibility of achieving anything diplomatically with Iran in particular without the threat of force and other forms of non-diplomatic pressure, For his argument in full,  CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in…

Iran’s hardliners look to consolidate control in parliamentary election

Behnam Ben Taleblu

Axios, February 20, 2020
The narrowing of Iran’s political spectrum will be demonstrated on Friday in parliamentary elections dominated by hardline candidates.


Driving the news

An estimated one-third of sitting parliamentarians were disqualified from participating, reformists were barred en masse, and boycotts are expected from portions of the increasingly disenfranchised population.

Why it matters

  • For Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, having more hardliners at the helm of different institutions as he enters the eighth decade of his life is an insurance policy against change from within.
  • For hardline politicians, the conservative consolidation will make capturing the presidency in 2021 even easier.
  • For Hassan Rouhani, the current president, it will confirm his lame-duck status
  • For the Iranian people, who have been increasingly willing to protest since 2017, it is proof that change will not come through a highly-controlled “ballot-box.”
  • For Washington, although the parliament does not decide foreign policy, more hardliners will likely mean a more confrontational approach, especially on the nuclear issue.

Where things stand

Iran’s unelected Guardian Council, which vets candidates for elected office, disqualified just over half of the over 15,000 people who registered to run for the 290 seat Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis, in Persian).

  • Should some seats remain vacant, a second round of voting will be held in the spring.
  • This will be Iran’s 11th parliament since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

What they’re saying

Khamenei has played to both Islamist and nationalist sentiment in a bid to get out the vote, going so far as to call voting a “religious duty.” He told Iranians to vote even if they don’t like him.

  • Others have talked about voting as a way to secure Iran and deflect foreign pressure.
  • Conversely, reformist intellectuals and activists outside the country who have traditionally favored participation are now calling for an election boycott.


The Islamic Republic also used the 2012 parliamentary vote — which followed a disputed presidential contest — to consolidate power and spin participation as a show of support during a critical time.

The bottom line

Faced with increasing domestic unrest and Washington’s ongoing maximum pressure campaign, Iranian authorities are looking to use the election to signal strength abroad by alleging popularity at home. If turnout is as low as expected, that will send the opposite message.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Iran’s Predetermined Parliamentary Election

Mehdi KhalajiPolicywatch, February 19, 2020

The vote will further consolidate Khamenei’s authoritarian rule, while the Majlis seems set to continue its decline in importance.

On February 21, Iran will hold its eleventh parliamentary election, along with its fifth election for the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with naming the next Supreme Leader. It is safe to predict that the next Majlis will be predominantly loyal to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; in fact, it will probably be Iran’s least autonomous legislature in decades. This forecast puts President Hassan Rouhani in a perilous position: his political role compels him to encourage public participation in an election that his camp is guaranteed to lose.


The Islamic Republic’s claim to be a revolutionary government depends on mass participation in politics. In order to deny the unpalatable reality—that coercion is the main factor in its survival—the regime needs evidence to back the claim that it still enjoys wide popular support.

Accordingly, the leadership is using all available means to encourage people to vote on February 21, just as it has done in previous elections. At the same time, it is marshaling its traditional methods of manipulating every phrase of the process, from candidate qualification to the final vote count and announcement of results. Yet such fraudulence is limited somewhat by several factors, including the presence of candidate representatives at voting stations and during the counting process, as well as power struggles between the Rouhani government’s Interior Ministry and the Khamenei-controlled Guardian Council.

To portray the election as proof of its continued popularity and “democratic” legitimacy, the regime must be able to announce an official turnout rate of at least 50 percent of eligible voters. Even with its well-oiled machinery of fraud at work, credibly announcing that figure will require the regime to reach at least 40 percent actual participation.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said on Iranian television “Today, voting is not only a revolutionary and national responsibility, but it is also a religious duty,” 

Toward that end, the Supreme Leader and other religious authorities have called on people to vote not as a political right, but as a religious duty. Yet the regime’s shrinking popularity has diminished its powers of persuasion on this front. Given the twin crises of ideals and authority that Iranian society has been undergoing for some time, authorities of all stripes—from religious figures to sports stars and celebrities—have lost much of their ability to politically mobilize the masses. Furthermore, the government’s continuous economic failures have damaged the public’s trust so badly that seducing voters by offering new economic promises seems delusional.


The political context in which the current election is taking place appears quite distinct. Two major developments have shaped this environment: the regime’s unprecedented violence in oppressing peaceful demonstrators last November, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ January 8 downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet filled with Iranian citizens.

The public could plausibly accept the notion that the IRGC accidentally shot down an airliner, however tragic the results. What infuriated Iranians—even many of the regime’s supporters—was the government’s initial denial of the fact, its irresponsible and arrogant attitude toward the victims’ families, and its persistent refusal to be transparent about the incident. Instead, the regime shamelessly hid the truth and disseminated confusing claims in order to mislead both the people and foreign governments. Such behavior traumatized many Iranians and further corroded their already decaying trust in the regime.

To overcome this long-unfolding crisis of legitimacy, the government needed to go beyond its social power base (reduced to a minority at present) and reground its popularity on invented nationalist sentiment. This was a tricky move given that the regime had relied on ardent anti-nationalist policies and propaganda under the late Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, particularly after his 1981 fatwa outlawing such sentiment as apostasy and calling past nationalist exemplar Muhammad Mossadeq an infidel. To sidestep this contradiction while playing the nationalist card, Supreme Leader Khamenei has relied on the politics of fear over the past few years. According to his narrative—which sharpened after the 2011 Syrian uprising—Iran was at actual war with its enemies, and national security was now the top priority uniting all citizens behind the regime.

In order to sell this idea and intensify Iranian securitization efforts at home and abroad, the regime has sought to convince nationalist Iranians outside its narrow constituency that the country is under imminent military threat, and that the Islamic Republic is the only leadership structure capable of staving off regional chaos and preventing territorial disintegration. This argument has been used not only to justify Iran’s defiant, expansionist regional policy, but also to neutralize domestic opposition. Such contortions put the citizenry in an awkward position: namely, being an Iranian nationalist now entails supporting the regime even if you hate the regime.

Thus, in a speech he delivered on February 5, Khamenei called on “everyone who loves Iran” to participate, even if they “dislike” the Supreme Leader. He also repeatedly described the election in nationalist, security-oriented terms, calling the process a “threat to the enemy,” claiming that it “guarantees the country’s security,” and noting that its positive impact on foreign perceptions of Iran would help resolve “many of our international problems.”


The Iranian Majlis, or parliament, is being stripped of its autonomy and democratic functions, leaving this legislative election all but meaningless. 

Beside openly and repeatedly stating that the parliament must subordinate itself to his will, Khamenei has frequently dictated legislative policy to Majlis members and exerted his authority over their votes. This approach, coupled with the tradition of purging candidate lists ahead of elections, has stripped the Majlis of any ability to protect its autonomy and democratic functions. Instead, the body’s enforced loyalty to Khamenei has given him another effective tool to weaken the president and prevent the elected government from disobeying his directives or challenging his authority. Pushing for a monolithically hardline Majlis will also help protect the regime’s revolutionary core if Khamenei passes away during its four-year term.

Even as the parliament becomes less and less important, hardliners are still determined to keep it from serving as a platform for reformist complaints. Accordingly, the Guardian Council disqualified an astounding number of parliamentary candidates leading up to this election—more than 16,000 in total, including 90 members of the current Majlis and nearly all reformist figures and Rouhani allies. This decision may indicate Khamenei’s overconfidence, since it essentially ends the traditional practice of allowing reformists to voice some of their criticisms via the Majlis. Sadly, such self-assurance may be justified given Rouhani’s dramatic decline in popularity and the overwhelming loss of public hope regarding the reformists.

This approach does carry some risk for Khamenei, though. If the people continue to lose confidence in their ability to make changes within the system, they are more likely to decide that the entire system must go. Indeed, anti-regime and anti-Khamenei chants are now among the first to be heard at most public protests—a development once deemed unthinkable.


The election gives the U.S. government an opportunity to amplify the voices of Iranians who have been calling out the regime’s increasingly anti-democratic nature. When remarking on the vote and its aftermath, U.S. officials should put the words of these Iranians front and center, since they are much more credible than foreign criticisms from the Trump administration. Washington has become quite adept at citing Iranian complaints about corruption and abuse, so now is the time to turn up the volume—both by asking senior officials to highlight such complaints, and by having U.S. broadcast channels bring Iranians the news that their government will not.

Mehdi Khalaji is the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute.

Former VP Joe Biden (third from right) – and other Democratic candidates for president – want to return to diplomacy with Iran to address its nuclear program. But diplomacy with Iran is not enough.


Supporters of the Obama administration’s Iran deal have tended to argue that “diplomacy” is the only answer to the threats posed by Tehran. Asked about their Iran policies, the Democrats running for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination all stress the need to either re-enter the deal or refocus on diplomacy.

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