Iran’s 'Deep State' Suffers a Stinging Defeat

Pro-reform candidates did surprisingly well at the ballot box.

Nationwide elections were held in Iran on Friday, February 26, for the Majles (Iran’s parliament) and the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader and can, at least theoretically, fire him as well.

The results for both the Majles and the Assembly have been resounding victories for a coalition between the reformists and the moderate supporters of President Hassan Rouhani, aligned with two former presidents, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Together with the independents, the coalition has captured at least 150 out of 290 seats in the Majles, including every single seat for the greater Tehran district, which has thirty representatives in the Majles. In the elections for the Assembly, fifteen out of the coalition’s sixteen candidates running in Tehran Province were elected, including, the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, a non-cleric candidate, Mohsen Esmaili.

While the victories have been interpreted as a stinging defeat for the conservatives that have controlled the two organs for years, they in fact represent a crushing defeat for Iran’s “deep state,” the secret and semisecret networks of security and intelligence officers and agents in those parts of the government that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei controls directly. Let me explain.

Over 12,100 people had registered with the Ministry of the Interior to run for the Majles. In Iran’s complex and undemocratic electoral process, the Ministry of the Interior must first certify the eligibility of the candidates. The ministry, which the Rouhani administration controls, approved over 11,300— representing nearly 94 percent of all candidates—with the rest having cases before courts, prior convictions, and so on. The next step was approval from the Guardian Council, another constitutional body that vets the candidates for all elections except those for city councils. It was at this stage that the “deep state” exerted its behind-the-scenes influence and prevented over 50 percent of the candidates from running.

By law, the Council must ask four governmental organizations to check the backgrounds of the candidates. The four are the Ministry of Intelligence, the Office of Chief Prosecutor, the National Organization for Civil Registration (operating as part of the Ministry of the Interior) and the police. Although it was expected that the Council would not allow some of the well-known Reformists who had supported the Green Movement of 2009–11 to run in the election, the disqualification of so many candidates even shocked many conservatives. The reason became clear when Ali Saeedi, Khamenei’s representative to the IRGC and a man who has been part of the security-intelligence establishment since the early 1980s, spoke about the disqualifications.

In a little-noticed press conference on February 16, Saeedi said that the Council had asked the intelligence unit of the IRGC, which he helped found in the early 1980s, to provide them with background information about the candidates. This was, of course, illegal, as the law provides no role for the IRGC in the vetting process. But clearly, the secret information provided by the IRGC intelligence unit had led to the disqualification of thousands of candidates. In other words, although such candidates had seemingly no case before the courts, the police or even the Ministry of Intelligence, secret cases against them did exist before the IRGC intelligence unit, which acts as a “Ministry of Intelligence” for the deep state, parallel to and independent from the Rouhani government’s own ministry.

Despite the setback, the Reformists, moderates and independents put together a coalition and introduced lists of candidates for most districts throughout the nation. In particular, they declared their support for a list of thirty candidates for greater Tehran’s district, and urged the people to vote for the entire list, rather than considering the candidates individually. Some of the Reformist candidates were almost totally unknown. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad referred to them as the “third-rate Reformist candidates.”

But Rafsanjani and Khatami urged the people to vote for the coalition list. Through his family, Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of the Majles and a leader in the Green Movement who has been under house arrest for more than five years, announced that he, too, would vote, and urged the people to do likewise. The three daughters of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, the other two leaders of the Green Movement who have also been under house arrest along with Karroubi, announced that they would vote as well. Many political prisoners issued statements, urging the people not to boycott the elections, and instead to vote to throw out the hard-line candidates. A true national movement was born.

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