News / Middle East

    Experts on Iran Elections: Expect More of Same

    FILE - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves as he stands next to a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Dec. 21, 2015.
    FILE - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves as he stands next to a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Dec. 21, 2015.
    Cecily Hilleary

    This week, Iranians will select a new parliament and Assembly of Experts in twin elections that many Western analysts regard as a defining moment in Iran, one which will test the country’s openness to reform and the future of the nuclear deal.  But, some observers close to Iran believe that regardless of whether reformists or conservatives come to power, the ultimate power holders in Iran will remain unchallenged.
    The elections taking place Friday are significant for two reasons:  First, in the aftermath of the nuclear deal, President Hassan Rouhani is hoping for a parliament that will support his desire to open up Iran’s economy up to foreign investment and trade—not to mention uphold its end of the deal, now that its assets have been released and most sanctions lifted.

    Second, the Assembly of Experts, whose chief job is to monitor, dismiss and elect Iran’s Supreme leaders, may get their chance to name a successor to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is elderly and said to be in poor health.

    But even if moderates do realize a victory in Friday’s vote, analysts doubt they will be able to usher in any meaningful reforms.  To understand why, one only needs to examine some key elements of Iran’s political structure.

    Iran's Ruling Structure
    Iran's Ruling Structure

    Top down management

    The Supreme Leader, Iran’s top political and religious leader, is tasked with safeguarding the theocracy formed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.  His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, controls all branches of the government, the military and the press, and has final say on foreign policy, military and security matters and Iran’s nuclear policy.

    ​The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are, in essence, an ideological army originally created to protect the supreme leader from foreign intervention or a military coup.  Over time, the IRGC have evolved into a powerful force that permeates all aspects of Iran’s society, politics and economy, both over- and underground.  They are believed to control a big chunk of the country’s GDP.

    The Guardian Council is made up of six religious jurists appointed by the supreme leader and six lay clerics named by the head of the judiciary, who himself is appointed by the supreme leader. The Guardians decide who may or may not run for office, and because the supreme leader can dismiss any of them at will, they are perceived as his “yes men” -- or, as Khamenei himself put it, the government’s “seeing eye.”  

    The Assembly of Experts is a group of 80 Islamic scholars whose chief job is to monitor, dismiss and elect Iran’s Supreme leaders.

    “Because they are vetted by the Guardian Council, they can be seen to have been indirectly appointed by the supreme leader,” noted Iranian-American political scientist Majid Rafizadeh.  “And the Guardian Council only vets candidates based on their religious authority and their loyalty and fidelity to the supreme leader.”

    Parliament, the 290-seat body that drafts laws, ratifies treaties, and supervises government spending.  Parliament has some wiggle room on policy, said Rafizadeh, but it basically looks to the supreme leader on fundamental policies.

    “And when the Supreme Leader favors a policy, regardless of whether the Parliament is moderate or reformist or hardline, it goes along with the Supreme Leader, because that’s just how the system works,” he added.

    Iran President Hassan Rouhani (L) smiles with Pope Francis at the Vatican Jan. 26, 2016.
    Iran President Hassan Rouhani (L) smiles with Pope Francis at the Vatican Jan. 26, 2016.

    The president, the highest-elected leader in Iran, heads the executive branch of the government, the national security council and the council of cultural revolution, which is tasked with preserving religious nature of the Islamic Republic.
    “It has been the rule in Iranian politics that once a president is elected, he wants to put some distance between himself and the supreme leader because after all, he cannot ignore a rather sizeable segment of the Iranian public that wants to have more reformist policies adapted,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor and chair of the political science department at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

    That said, Rouhani ultimately answers to the supreme leader and is mindful of the fact that parliament has the power to recommend a president’s removal from office.

    Vote rigged from outset?

    The Guardian Council this month eliminated half of the roughly 12,000 candidates who signed up to run for the Assembly and parliament, most of them moderates.  Given this and the power configuration in Iran, Boroujerdi said he doesn’t expect much to change.

    “At best, I expect the reformists will be a small minority within the parliament, but not necessarily a force that is going to be facilitating what President Rouhani really wishes for,” he said.

    Indeed, say experts, getting what he wishes for could ultimately hurt him.

    Consider what happened to former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who was elected for two consecutive terms on promises of more jobs, more freedoms and a free market.
    “The reformists took over the parliament, and the next thing you know, the IRCG, basij [paramilitary] and police, they shut down newspapers, they shot at point blank range the political strategies of Khatemi, and they just silenced him,” said Harvard scholar Majid Rafizadeh.

    Later, the government accused Khatemi of “sedition” and has since banned him from appearing in the media, speaking in public or leaving the country.

    The media ban, however, did not stop Kahtemi from issuing a video message on YouTube this week in which, speaking Farsi, he urged voters to select reformist candidates, saying that "the more the people participate in the elections and the more enthusiastically different ideologies are represented, the closer the elections will be to the people's will, the interests of the country, and the people's goals."  (Below):

    Nor does there appear much chance that the Assembly of Experts, if given the chance this term, will name a reformist Supreme Leader.  That decision, said Boroujerdi, may already have been made.

    “If we accept the premise of the argument that the current supreme leader is a micromanager, my sense is that he might have handpicked his successor and might therefore tell the Assembly of Experts, ‘here are my last wishes,’” Boroujerdi said.  “Just like you saw with Ayatollah Khomeni when he passed away -- he basically had already suggested the Khamenei as his successor.”

    You May Like

    Top US General: Turkish Media Report ‘Absurd'

    General Dunford rejects ‘irresponsible' claims of coup involvement by former four-star Army General Campbell, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan before retiring earlier this year

    Video Saving Ethiopian Children Thought to Be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at efforts of one African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children

    Protests Over Western Troops Threaten Libyan 'Unity' Government

    Fears mount that Islamist foes of ‘unity' government plan to declare a revolutionaries' council in Tripoli

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    February 25, 2016 9:53 AM
    It doesn't matter who wins, Khamenei calls the shots. You can't find the slightest glint of light between what Iraniacs call "Islamic democracy" and what truly free people call theocratic tyranny.

    by: AHMED from: INDIA
    February 24, 2016 8:52 PM
    At least there is election on regular basis in Iran. There is freedom in Iran. I have seen church in Iran with out any Police. This shows how much security is there for christians.
    Where as there is NO election for the Last so many Decades in Saudi Arab, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, UAE & Kuwait. There is no church in Saudi Arab where as UAE have church and some kind of freedom which is not there in Saudi Arab.

    by: Mkhattib from: USA
    February 24, 2016 6:31 PM
    There are plenty of Iranians who would like some kind of reform of a society that is tightly controlled by a repressive government. They will grasp at any straws offered by the regime such as the chance to elect an alleged moderate to the presidency like Rouhani even though they know the office has little power. They’ll also hope that some moderates will somehow make it into the parliament. But they also know that the Islamists maintain a monopoly on political power. Moreover, they are also painfully aware that the ayatollahs and their violent henchmen will meet any real challenges to it — as opposed to the fake ones on display in the election — with the same brutality they meted out to protesters in the streets of Iran in 2009.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunitiesi
    VOA News
    July 25, 2016 5:09 PM
    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.

    Video Four Brother Goats Arrive in Brooklyn on a Mission

    While it's unusual to see farm animals in cities, it's become familiar for residents of Brooklyn, New York, to see a little herd of goats. Unlike gas-powered mowing equipment, goats remove invasive weeds quietly and without adding more pollution to the air. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this is a pilot program and if it proves to be successful, the goat gardener program will be extended to other areas of New York. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora