The Myth of a Meaningful Vote in Iran

Iranians will go to the polls on February 26 to elect members of the 290-seat parliament and the 88-seat Assembly of Experts. A parliament that will continue to be dominated by hardliners is thought to be an obstacle to President Hassan Rouhani’s reforms. Elections to the Assembly of Experts will be closely watched because the body will likely select a successor to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. The 76-year-old Khamenei is persistently rumored to be in poor health.

Yet a closer look at both institutions reveals that neither election will be as meaningful as they are often portrayed in the international press. In the aftermath of elections, the parliament is unlikely to act with much decisiveness and the Assembly of Experts probably will not in fact choose the next leader, but rather, rubber stamp a selection made by unelected others.

Council on Foreign Relations

The dichotomy often made by foreign observers of an Iranian polity divided between hardliners and reformers is an oversimplification. Rouhani has never been part of the reform faction as the term is properly understood in its Iranian context. The reform movement evolved in the early 1990s by calling for accountability and pluralism. The descendants of that movement were the participants in the Green Revolution of 2009, which was brutally repressed with Rouhani’s blessing. (He served in the Supreme National Security Council at the time.) Since the purges of 2009, Iranian politics have been reduced to a coalition of hardliners and centrists who agree far more than they disagree. On crucial foreign-policy issues, such as projection of power in the Middle East and aiding the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, there is a rough consensus across the political spectrum. As such, elections are unlikely to usher in a new direction in Iran’s international relations.

The parliament has proven a boisterous but largely inconsequential debating chamber. In the complex Iranian system, the parliament’s laws can be overwritten by various institutions, such as the unelected Guardian Council, whose job is to vet legislation to make sure it conforms to religious standards. This function has regularly been abused by the Guardian Council, which has vetoed bills that have little to do with religious matters. It routinely sends budgets back to the parliament for greater deliberation even though it is unclear how they violate Islamic law.

Rouhani has faced little opposition from the parliament due to his close collaboration with the powerful speaker, Ali Larijani. Although a conservative himself, Larijani is very much a man of the system who is interested in the government functioning smoothly. The Rouhani-Larijani partnership has ensured that the firebrands in the parliament do not interfere with the executive branch’s agenda.

The Democracy Report

The Assembly of Experts is another institution that looms larger on paper than in real life. An elderly clerical body dominated by conservatives, it meets periodically to listen to briefings by various officials. Its membership is controlled with as much zealousness as other elected offices.

The Guardian Council has been even more rigorous in its vetting process for the assembly than for the parliament, even denying the candidacy of Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Guardian Council’s moves signaled that a qualified candidate must possess both theological erudition and political reliability.

the Council on Foreign Relations.