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Iran Election or Selection? What are the Prospects?

On February 26, two “elections” will be held in Iran simultaneously: for the 290 seats of “Islamic Consultative Assembly.” (Majlis or parliament) and for the 86-member Assembly of Experts which is nominally tasked with selecting the Supreme Leader and supervising his conduct.

The Constitution and election laws

The nature of elections in Iran is different from democratic countries. The Constitution prevents those elections from adhering to recognized international standards and from reflecting the preferences of the full range of Iran’s societal demographics.

Some of the Articles in the clerical regime’s constitution regarding elections

Article 91: Provides the formation of the “Guardian Council” (GC) which is comprised of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists appointed by the head of the Judiciary, who is also appointed by the Supreme Leader. The Article states: “With a view to safeguarding the Islamic ordinances and the Constitution and in order to examine the compatibility of the legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly with Islam, a council to be known as the Guardian Council is to be established.”

Article 93: “The Islamic Consultative Assembly does not hold any legal status if there is no Guardian Council in existence.”

Article 57 declares that “the legislative branch is under the supervision of the Velayat-e Faqhih (Supreme Leader).” In a 1989 revision of the Constitution, the power of the Supreme Leader was expanded and the system was called “absolute rule of Velayat-e Faqhih.”

Articles 4, 72, 85, 94 and 96 point out that the ratification of any law is conditional upon the approval of the Guardian Council, all of whom have been directly or indirectly appointed by the Supreme Leader.

Article 99: “The GC has the responsibility of supervising the elections of the Assembly of Experts for Leadership, the President of the Republic, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, and the direct recourse to popular opinion and referenda.”

Article 26 stipulates that political parties must not violate “Islamic laws” and Article 27 allows assembly and gatherings only if “they do not violate Islamic principles and foundations.” Accordingly, no opposition group can exist within the country and as such no opposition is participating in the current elections. In other words, this is an election only within the established regime and among those loyal to the system.

Article 98 of the Constitution states that the GC is responsible for the interpretation of the Constitution when and where such interpretation might be required.

The vetting process

Every candidate must register with the Interior Ministry by a pre-determined date. Subsequently four bodies start the vetting process: Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Judiciary, State Security and the public registrar. The most important body is the MOIS. The Interior Ministry announces the results of the first round of review and whoever is found to have even the least non-conformity is disqualified. The vetting process then proceeds to the GC, which is the pivotal body in the vetting process.

Total loyalty to supreme leader as pre-requisite for the selection process

Article 28 of the law of election for parliament stipulates that candidates must “believe and adhere to Islam and the sacred system of the Islamic Republic in practice,” and “express loyalty to the Constitution and the progressive principle of Velayat-e Faqhih.”

In 1991 the GC published its interpretation of its role regarding the elections by stating that the “supervision mentioned in Article 90 of the Constitution is approbative and covers all stages of elections including approval or disqualification of the candidates.”

On October 5, 2015, Ahmad Janati, the secretary of the GC went further and stated that the belief and adherence of candidates must be “whole-hearted.” Referring to seats in the Iranian parliament, he said “these positions belong to Hezbollahis and revolutionary and committed individuals [not all the people]. GC will not allow those who do not whole-heartedly believe in the system, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, the Imam’s line and the line of Velayat-e Faqhih to enter the Parliament…This Council will listen to no one but the leader and will apply the law in approving or disqualifying the upcoming elections’ candidates.”

Therefore, even within the regime and among those who believe in the system and are loyal to the Supreme Leader, only those who can prove that their belief and conduct are “whole-heartedly” in line with the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader can participate in the election. Furthermore, those appointed by Supreme Leader decide who fits this criterion and thus who can be a member of parliament.

This year’s elections in numbers:

Parliamentary elections
For the upcoming parliamentary elections, 12,123 candidates registered as candidates for 290 seats. In its first stage, the GC-appointed five-member supervisory delegations considered the eligibility of the candidates. In this phase, the delegations rejected 7,403 of the candidates as not meeting the conditions set by the law to participate in the election.

Those affiliated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were summarily approved. Conversely, those who could broadly be defined as affiliates of the Rafsanjani-Rouhani faction were mostly rejected. A leading spokesman of this faction said that in Tehran, out of 760 candidates affiliated with them only four have been approved and that out of more than 3,000 candidates throughout the country 30 have been approved. Some 50 members of the parliament were deemed ineligible despite the fact that they currently hold seats in parliament and would have been running for reelection.
Assembly of Experts elections
Out of 810 candidates for the Assembly of Experts, only 165 have been approved. In nine constituencies, the disqualifications have left only one candidate running uncontested. Not a single woman was approved, since the regime’s official position is that women are not competent to participate in the decision-making process related to the Supreme Leader.

Reconsideration process

In accordance with the law, those rejected for both elections in the first stage had the right to appeal. However, the appeal is considered by the GC, which is the same body that originally disqualified those candidates through its supervisory delegations. The GC has reconsidered the case of those who appealed its earlier decision and decided to approve 15% of those who had been disqualified. However, 147 candidates who were previously approved by the GC Supervisory Delegations were disqualified during the reconsideration process. Thus, 6,300 out of 12,123 candidates were approved, meaning that half of the candidates have been disqualified.

Decisive factors in Iran’s elections

Elections in Iran are not decided by the free will of the people because those who are nominated as candidates only represent a very small fraction of the Iranian population; ie, IRGC members and others who have a vested interest in the regime and are entirely loyal to the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader.

Therefore, the elections are decided by the internal balance of power between long-established factions and by certain considerations deemed necessary for the survival of the system. The prime objective of all factions is to maintain the status quo of the clerical regime. In the 2013 presidential election, Rouhani was the supreme leader’s least favorite candidate. However, under pressure from international sanctions and in fear of another popular uprising like the 2009, Khamenei reluctantly accepted Rouhani, although since then he has tried to take advantage of Rouhani outside Iran to gain more concession from Western powers.

This year elections and its repercussions are important to the regime for a number of reasons.

1. The Rift at the top of the regime
There is a serious rift within the regime’s establishment. On one hand Khamenei, the bulk of IRGC and other financial and religious foundations and institutions are lined up to preserve the status quo. On the other hand Rouhani and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, with the support of the individuals or groups that have already been purged within the regime, are lined up demanding their share of power.

Rafsanjani and Rouhani are hoping to gain the majority in the parliament and also strengthen their position in the Assembly of Experts. Disqualification of their candidates makes it unlikely they will succeed. This is not the first time that Khamenei has rooted out his rival faction ahead of important elections. He did exactly the same in 2005 when he maneuvered Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into the presidency. However, given that the regime is facing worse crisis than it was facing 11 years ago, the consequences of a total purge could be devastating for the regime.
2. Economic and regional crises
The clerical regime is engulfed in a number of external wars, particularly in Syria. At the same time, it is facing the repercussions of the nuclear deal at home, namely failure to meet the high expectation for improved economic conditions at a time when the population is increasingly discontented. The active presence of the IRGC in the Syrian war and the increasing number of casualties they have already suffered is having demoralizing consequences at home even among families of the Guards.

Khamenei and his officials are desperately trying to defend their participation in the Syrian Civil War and to justify the casualties by saying that the fight will come home to Iran if it is not prosecuted on foreign territory. This explains the regime’s fear of the overthrow of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. In addition to the war in Syria, support for Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and other terror groups is putting strain on the regime.

Despite all of the regime’s rhetoric and the apparent Western eagerness to re-engage with Iran, the economic situation has not changed for the Iranian people. Moreover, the continued stagnation and instability is contributing to growing doubts among Western companies about their prospects for long-term investment in Iran. A pro regime economist predicted that “this election might postpone the end of recession for two years. Thus, turning into a new quagmire for the Iranian economy, the government and the political apparatus of the regime.”

3. The war of succession
The current election is made more important by Khamenei’s age and illness, which make it quite possible that the next Assembly of Experts will be faced with the task of electing the next supreme leader. Khamenei was hospitalized on September 8, 2015 and was said to have undergone “prostate surgery.” The news of this condition was intentionally publicized by his office, but some unconfirmed reports suggest that he might be suffering from advanced-stage cancer.

Furthermore, there are reports that indicate Khamenei wishes to have his successor selected while he is still alive. According to one report obtained from sources close to the IRGC, Khamenei has told a number of high ranking officials including Rafsanjani and IRGC Commander in Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari, “After me, it will be more difficult to reach a consensus for my successor. Thus, this issue should be resolved during my lifetime.” Rafsanjani has lately raised the possibility of establishing a council of leadership to replace the sole supreme leader, which is not in line with Khamenei’s preferences.

Factional feuding
The factional feuding is currently very tense. But contrary to mistaken perceptions in the West, which have been encouraged by the regime and its advocates, this feud is not a competition between moderates and hardliners. This misguided perception demonstrate a lack of knowledge of the situation in Iran and the Iranian regime.
The main dispute is not between reform and status quo or two different schools of thought but it is a reflection of deepening crises and the regime failure to either resolve or even contain them. Thus, the dispute is on tactical differences regarding how best to preserve the system.

The dispute derives from an existential crisis, with each faction arguing that the other’s approach will lead to the overthrow of the regime. The Rafsanjani-Rouhani faction demand their share of power and some tactical maneuvering to preserve the regime’s survival, while Khamenei repeatedly warns that any opening to the outside world and more important any domestic opening will lead to the end of the Islamic Republic.
The irony is that both factions are correct. This is the paradox and dilemma that the regime is facing. It cannot preserve the status quo much longer, but it also cannot afford to change course.

Regardless of which faction might have the upper hand, the outcome of the elections will certainly deepen the regime’s internal crisis. If Khamenei succeeds in his intention to purge the other faction, it means that Rouhani’s government will become weaker in the internal conflict and less able to have any impact on the regime’s policies and conducts. This outcome would ultimately weaken the regime in two ways:

Firstly, it would further shrink the base of the regime and create more resentment within the regime including among the religious institutions.
Secondly, an obvious purge would likely put an end to the illusion of moderation within the clerical regime. This would make it even more unlikely for the regime to be able to take advantage of the nuclear accord, since Western governments would find it difficult to offer further concessions to the regime.

On the other hand, if Khamenei fails to successfully purge the other faction, the rift in the regime’s leadership will only widen, which could provide a window of opportunity for the people and trigger mass uprisings against the entirety of the regime. This is Khamenei’s nightmare.

In short Khamenei seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Whichever direction the elections take it, the loser will be the regime in its entirety.