Iran’s Elections: Reformists, Hardliners and the ‘Deep State’

February 26 is an important day for Iran—and for the Middle East.

Two highly important nationwide elections will be held in Iran on February 26. They are for the Majles [parliament] and the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader and can, at least theoretically, fire him as well. The Majles has 290 members, five of whom are reserved for religious minorities. Jews and Zoroastrians elect one representative each, Assyrians elect one, and Armenians vote for two candidates of their own. The Assembly has 88 members. The Majles 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 judiciary apparatus who supposedly support the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—banned the two major political organizations of the reformists, Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Organization 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 Majles seats, and the councils accepted the candidacy of over 93 percent of them.

Accepting the vast majority of the candidates by the executive councils angered deeply 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. Thus, candidates that are linked to the deep state would not win any competitive and fair elections.

The deep state is also terrified by President Rouhani’s high popularity in the aftermath of the nuclear accord signed between Iran and P5+1 and the recent lifting of the economic sanctions. Khamenei has also been resisting Rouhani’s efforts for creating a more open society and giving political space to moderates and the reformists. The deep state has the most to lose, both politically and economically, from any relaxation of the hardliners repressive rule, and in particular holding competitive elections.

Thus, the deep state went to work. Mohammad Hossein Nejat, deputy IRGC chief for cultural and social affairs, 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, criticized such a large number of disqualified candidates, and strongly criticized Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-hardline cleric and Secretary-General of the Guardian Council.