Five Things to Watch in Iran's Election

The results this week will shape the Islamic Republic for years to come.

Iranians go to the polls Friday in two elections: one for the legislature (the Majles) and one for the Assembly of Experts, a little-used but important body of Islamic clerics charged with supervising and selecting the Supreme Leader. It’s a big deal: officials suggest some 60–70 percent of eligible voters will cast their ballots, and figures across and outside the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum have encouraged participation. President Hassan Rouhani, in power since 2013 and with the nuclear deal under his belt, hopes to pick up reformist and moderate allies in the Majles that can help him implement his domestic agenda; conservatives want to hamstring him and build momentum to take back the presidency next year.


1. Who wins?

As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, has often said, Iranian elections are “unfree, unfair and unpredictable.” The Guardian Council, a twelve-member outfit tasked with protecting Iran’s constitution, has liberally applied its power to disqualify candidates for both elections, only allowing half of potential Majles contenders and one in five Assembly of Experts contenders through. These disqualifications appear to have tilted against reformist factions, with the initial round blocking 99 percent of reformist candidates. On the Assembly of Experts side, Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ruhollah Khomeini, was disqualified in spite of prominent endorsements from other clerics. (At just forty-three years old, Khomeini would have been decades younger than most of the other Experts, but it’s worth noting that a twenty-four year-old was found qualified.) The current field is a product of constraints imposed from above; as Saeed Ghasseminejad noted in the National Interest last week, it is so narrow that the reformist list for the Assembly of Experts had to draw on figures who’d been involved in killing dissidents.

All this takes place in a context where political competition is not open and where political competition that is allowed operates under restrictions. Prominent reformist leaders are under house arrest or barred from appearing in the media; those who oppose the regime itself, even if committed to changing it by democratic means, are kept out of politics and often in prison. Candidates had just one week to campaign, and faced restrictions on the size of their rallies; nonhardline candidates have been subject to violent harassment by vigilantes who enjoy the regime’s tacit support. One reformist candidate had his car set on fire; another was prevented from speaking in a mosque when rowdies let off tear gas. Those involved in previous incidents like these have enjoyed relative impunity: last year, for example, Ali Motahari, a conservative regime critic who is heading a list in the current elections, was riding in a vehicle that was attacked with sticks, stones, and pepper spray while he was on the way to give a speech; the perpetrators received suspended sentences, and those who had invited Motahari to speak were fined. Even negative political ads are barred. The result is a disorganized field with unclear platforms (although Al-Monitor’s Arash Karami spotted one candidate apparently promising his supporters a year of free internet) and little accountability.

Even so, the result of the election still matters. There are still differences among the candidates. A major win for the reformists, centrists and nonhardline conservatives would send a strong signal to the regime about the Iranian public’s desires and will raise the stakes of internal debates about the country’s direction. A more open political sphere is one possible outcome of that. A conservative win, on the other hand, would weaken the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani and potentially render him a lame duck ahead of 2017’s presidential elections.


2. Who is allowed to win?