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

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    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.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora