Why Does Iran Hold So Many Elections?

Why Does Iran Hold So Many Elections?

Constant—and highly stage-managed—elections are a useful tool for Iran's theocratic leadership to remain in power.

On June 28, 2024, Iranians will again go to the polls, this time to replace Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a May 2024 helicopter crash. As with every previous election, it will be a sham devoid of genuine democratic integrity. Indeed, of the 80 declared candidates, the Guardian Council, a twelve-member body that vets candidates as an extension of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s will, approved only six men, each a loyalist to the regime and the supreme leader.

Over the past four decades, the regime has held thirty-one major elections for national seats since 1980, each little more than a charade. Despite its authoritarian grip where the supreme leader rules with an iron fist as the representative of God on Earth, the Islamic Republic persists in these theatrics, prompting a question: why bother?

By handpicking candidates, the regime stifles competition. Khamenei appoints half of the Guardian Council’s members, while the Judiciary chief, a Khamenei appointee, suggests the rest. Because the Council must also approve any legislation the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, passes, Khamenei has disempowered elected officials to the advantage of his own appointees.

Such mechanisms ensure that elections are almost risk-free for the regime. Moreover, as the 2009 presidential election showed, the regime can both rig results and quash any resulting dissent.

The late Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, spiritual leader of the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability faction and a seventeen-year member of the Assembly of Experts, a body charged with choosing the next supreme leader, argued the reason the Islamic Republic held elections was that the supreme leader had seen fit that there should be elections.

Mesbah stated that the supreme leader had the right to choose another form of government which would not include elections. To Mesbah, the assembly of experts does not elect the supreme leader; it discovers the will of God. According to Mesbah, the people’s vote and consent play no role in the Islamic government’s legitimacy, which derives from God’s will with the supreme leader as representative of the Hidden Imam of Shia belief.

The supreme leader, however, believed the benefits of the electoral pantomime to be worth the expense.

Tehran cultivates this illusion of democracy in an attempt to convince the international community that it upholds a semblance of democratic norms. The internal power struggles among regime factions can lead foreign observers to believe there is a genuine contest between “reformist” and “hardliner” factions. Indeed, part of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aide Jake Sullivan’s logic in beginning the negotiations that would lead to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was his assumption that a deal struck with reformists providing financial relief to Iranians could give them a political boost over the hardliners. 

This façade also serves to frame foreign criticism as unwarranted interference against a supposedly elected government. Regime propagandists trumpet their version of “Islamic democracy,” while more sophisticated defenders concede Iran’s elections are flawed but claim they are improving, or at least have the potential to do so.

This is wishful thinking. For years, the regime dangled possible reform to placate Iranians, fostering the notion that change could occur without protest, upheaval, or violence. Elections sustained the illusion that the ballot box could bring change. Even after the 2009 crackdown following the fraudulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians rushed to the ballot boxes in 2013 to vote for Hassan Rouhani, a veteran of the security apparatus who subsequently positioned himself as a moderate. 

However, since 2017, both the regime’s ability to sustain this illusion and its appetite for controlled dissent among insiders have diminished. Over the last seven years, Iranians took to the streets three times, in 2017, 2019, and 2022, to denounce the regime. The regime’s response has been to kill thousands and imprison tens of thousands of others. In 2017 and 2019, it was Rouhani who presided over the crackdown, leading Iranians to chant, “Reformist! Principalist! The game is over!” Iranians still protest on a daily basis.

The election façade also helps protect Khamenei by enabling him to eschew direct responsibility for hardships and failings, allowing him instead to scapegoat elected officials. Though Khamenei holds absolute power, micromanaging every issue would expose him to risk. Elections enable Khamenei to maintain maximum power with minimum accountability. It allows his base to look at regime failure and corruption and murmur, “The supreme leader himself is a good man, even if his ministers are corrupt and incompetent.”

The Islamic Republic’s elections are a strategic tool that fortifies the regime. By allowing limited competition among loyalists and controlling both candidates and outcomes, the regime bolsters its resilience against internal and external pressures while maintaining a veneer of legitimacy on the world stage.

To imbue this month’s presidential elections with any real importance, then, is to miss the forest for the trees. In a world full of uncertainty, one thing is certain: a new president will herald no substantive political change for Iran.

Dr. Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior Iran and financial economics advisor at FDD specializing in Iran’s economy and financial markets, sanctions, and illicit finance. Saeed’s work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Fox News, Foreign Policy, The Hill, Business Insider, The Weekly Standard, The National Interest, National Post (Canada), Hurriyet (Turkey), Arab News, and The Jerusalem Post. Follow him on X: @SGhasseminejad.

Image: Farzad Abdollahi / Shutterstock.com.