May 20, 2016

Iran's Guardian Council Pushes the Limits of Its Electoral Control

The Guardian Council is seeking to disqualify Minoo Khaleghi, a reformist politician who won a seat in the February 26 parliamentary elections. The 12-member body constitutionally charged with managing Iran’s elections annulled her votes in late March, reportedly after photographs circulated online of her without a headscarf. The Guardian Council has long held and exercised the right to vet candidates before elections. This ex post facto disqualification would mark a potentially dramatic expansion of the Council’s ability to control Iran’s managed democracy. It could also hint at the means by which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his conservative allies intend to mitigate their electoral failure.

International coverage of Khaleghi’s case has missed its real significance. Some analysts argue that the disqualification primarily reveals hardliners’ efforts to marginalize their opponents after a reformist-moderate bloc won a plurality of seats in the new parliament.[1] Others have used the incident to criticize Iran’s strict dress codes for women.[2] Both narratives are accurate enough, but they obscure the deeper implications of the case.

Khaleghi’s case will set an important precedent for other parliamentarians and future elections. If the disqualification is upheld, then the Guardian Council’s arbitrary power to disqualify candidates will no longer be limited to specified rounds of pre-election vetting. It will instead span the entire electoral process, which the Council has now controversially defined as including a period after election-day itself. Officials on the Council have not clarified when this period ends, if it all. This open-ended precedent has the potential to influence Iranian politics beyond the composition of this specific Parliament or the contentious issue of women’s clothing. It would place Iran’s elected bodies even further under the supervision of a largely unelected council, in part by theoretically allowing the Council to disqualify ex post facto sitting parliamentarians.[3]

Khaleghi would be the first candidate to be disqualified by the Guardian Council after election-day and prevented from taking a seat in parliament. The Council completed its disqualifications of other candidates during several formal rounds of vetting from late December to mid-February.[4] Conservative and reformist parliamentarians alike have asserted that it would be unprecedented for the Guardian Council to disqualify a candidate outside of these rounds of review and that there is no legal basis for the Council to do so.[5]

President Hassan Rouhani and outspoken conservative parliamentarian Ali Motahari, two of Khaleghi’s most vocal and powerful supporters, have declared that the Council’s expansion of its power is both illegal and the most worrisome aspect of her disqualification. Both maintain that only Parliament has the right to review parliamentarians’ qualifications after election-day. Rouhani referred to the possibility of overturning Khaleghi’s disqualification during remarks on May 11, stating, “We must not allow the law to be violated, for hope in the future will be lost if such a thing happens.”[6] Motahari has written several open letters on Khaleghi’s case, including one in which he accused the Guardian Council of “disregarding” the law.[7]

This public criticism has not appeared to sway the Guardian Council’s decision-making. Its secretary, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, reasserted the Guardian Council’s supervisory power over elected candidates during remarks on May 11. He stated that “access to new documentation” relevant to candidates’ qualifications – such as the photographs allegedly of Khaleghi – can prompt the Guardian Council to disqualify them. He added that “the Guardian Council’s approbatory supervision is general and applies to all stages.”[8] Approbatory supervision refers to the Guardian Council’s vague interpretation of its supervisory powers as the ability to disqualify candidates for issues including perceived moral or religious failings even if they fulfill all legal requirements.[9] Jannati did not provide a timeframe for “all stages,” however – perhaps leaving open the possibility that the Guardian Council can remove sitting parliamentarians if it decides that it has obtained new information that would have caused it to disqualify them before the election.

Khaleghi’s disqualification is not yet final, however, despite erroneous media reports to the contrary. A dispute resolution council designed to mediate disagreements among the three branches of government has not yet formally announced its opinion as of May 19, according to the Interior Ministry.[10] There is also some precedent for overturning the Guardian Council’s post-elections disqualification. The Guardian Council disqualified a candidate after elections to the third Parliament in 1988.[11] The Interior Minister at the time reportedly sent the disqualified candidate’s credentials to Parliament, which confirmed him. The disqualified parliamentarian thus served out his term. “Based on this experience, I believe that the case of Ms. Minoo Khaleghi can be directly resolved through Parliament and the Interior Ministry,” another member of that parliament told reporters, although he added that he could not remember why the parliamentarian had been disqualified in the first place.[12] It is therefore not unprecedented for the Guardian Council to disqualify an elected candidate. It would be unprecedented, however, for that decision to be upheld. If it is, it will likely mark the beginning of a Guardian Council that manages Iran’s elections with an even heavier hand.

The Guardian Council, for its part, expects its disqualification to hold. Council member Siamak Rahpeyk stated that the election to fill Khaleghi’s seat will take place alongside the 2017 presidential elections.[13] The stakes are much higher than one reformist parliamentarian. They are part of the willingness and ability of the Iranian regime to constrain the Iranian people’s ability to select their leaders or influence their policies. That is a problem, in turn, for Western policies that rely on Iranian public opinion to affect the calculations of the regime.

[1] See “In Brazen Electoral Interference, Hardliners Disqualify Female Reformist MP,” International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, March 24, 2016, available: and Thomas Erdbrink, “She Won a Seat in Iran’s Parliament, but Hard-Liners Had Other Plans,” New York Times, May 11, 2016, available: For a breakdown of the April 29 runoff election results, see Frederick W. Kagan, Paul Bucala, Marie Donovan, and Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, “Iran Elections Tracker: Updates and Analysis,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Available:
[2] Lizzie Dearden, “Female politician disqualified from entering Iran's parliament over photos 'showing her not wearing headscarf',” The Independent, May 12, 2016. Available:  
[3] The Supreme Leader appoints half of the Guardian Council’s members directly. Parliament elects the other six members but must select them from a pool of candidates determined by the judiciary head, who is also appointed by the Supreme Leader.
[4] For a detailed analysis of the Guardian Council’s vetting process for candidates in the 2016 elections, see Caitlin Shayda Pendleton and Paul Bucala, “Iran’s 2016 Elections: The Process, the Players, and the Stakes,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, January 12, 2016. Available:
[6] “Rouhani darbaareh-ye ghaziyeh Minoo Khaleghi: hanuz naaomid nistam” [Rouhani regarding Minoo Khaleghi: I am not hopeless yet], Fararu, May 11, 2016. Available in Persian: See also “Iran News Round Up – April 28, 2016,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, April 28, 2016. Available:
[7] “Paasokh-e Motahari beh Jannati darbaareh-ye radsalahiyat-e Khaleghi: Agar ghablan hamchonin kardeid, khalaaf-e ghanoon budeh” [Motahari’s response to Jannati regarding the disqualification of Khaleghi: If you have done such a thing before, it is against the law], Kaleme, May 13, 2016. Available in Persian:
[8] “Barkhi ad’aa mikonad faghat majles mitavaanad e’tebarnameh-ye fard faaghed-e salaahiat-raa taayid nakonad / Nezaarat-e estisvabi-e shoura-ye negahbaan aam va dar temaam-e maraahal ast” [Some claim that only Parliament can refuse to confirm the credentials of an individual without qualifications / The Guardian Council’s approbatory supervision if general and applies to all stages], Fars News Agency, May 11, 2016. Available in Persian: http://www(.)farsnews(.)com/newstext.php?nn=13950222000833
[9]  “Nezaarat-e estisvabi ya’ani labi, moameleh va dastkaari dar kaast hokumati” [Abbrobatory supervision means lobbying, trading, and manipulation], Radio Farda, September 28, 2015. Available in Persian:
[10] See “Iran News Round Up – May 18,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, May 18, 2016, available: and “Iran News Round Up – May 11,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, May 11, 2016, available:
[11] “Ravaayat-e doh nemaayande-ye pishin az hal-e moshkeli shabieh Minoo Khaleghi dar majles-e sevvom” [The story of two former representatives regarding the solution to a problem like Minoo Khaleghi’s in the third Parliament], Khabar Online May 2, 2016. Available:
[12] Ibid.
[13] “Rahpeyk dar goftogu ba tasnim: Entekhab jaigozin montakhabe Esfahan dar majles-e dahom beh khordaad 96 mokol shod / 40 houzeh-ye entekhabieh tayid va 2 houzeh digar dar hal-e barresi” [Rahpeyk in a conversation with Tasnim: The election to replace the elected official in Esfahan in the tenth Parliament left to May/June 2017], Tasnim News Agency, May 11, 2016. Available in Persian:
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