January 20, 2016

Rouhani's Challenge in Parliamentary Elections: The Disqualification of Key Allies

One of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s greatest victories, the implementation of the nuclear deal, overlapped this weekend with a significant defeat. More than 12,000 Iranians registered to run for Parliament, but they first ran a gauntlet of reviews by various organs of the Iranian regime to determine whether they are “fit” to campaign. Very few Rouhani supporters and allies survived.

Recent reports suggest that the regime is likely to disqualify around 60 percent of those who registered. A disproportionate number belonged to the Reformist camp, which Rouhani and many U.S. policymakers have been hoping would make substantial gains in Parliament. One reformist complained to reporters that only 30 of the 3,000 registered Reformist candidates – one percent -- passed the second round of qualifications review. He noted that in some provinces, no Reformists were permitted to run at all.

The mass disqualifications in this election are highly controversial despite a history of aggressive candidate vetting by Iran’s Guardian Council, the powerful body constitutionally charged with overseeing the elections process. These disqualifications confirmed fears that the vetting process is skewing the electoral field away from Rouhani by decreasing the likelihood of translating public support for the nuclear deal into power shifts in Parliament. 

The vetting process is not yet complete, however. The Guardian Council itself must still review the decisions of lower bodies and make the final calls. Rouhani and other political elites immediately denounced the disqualifications and have vowed to address them with the Guardian Council before the process is complete, sparking an ongoing debate that will likely overshadow the nuclear deal itself in the coming weeks.


Who was disqualified?

Candidates were informed individually about the qualification review results, and there is no comprehensive, public list of disqualified candidates. Political leaders have been one of the primary sources of information instead. Their complaints indicate that hopeful Reformists were not the only disqualified candidates who could have helped Rouhani advance his agenda in Parliament. Nearly 50 sitting parliamentarians were also disqualified, many of whom are reportedly members of the Followers of the Velayat, the largest parliamentary faction and supporters of Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani. Many of them are also likely Rouhani allies in Parliament, and the extent of their disqualifications reportedly took Larijani by “surprise.” The disqualifications could be payback for the support Larijani provided to Rouhani’s efforts to get the nuclear deal approved by the Iranian parliament in an expeditious manner.


Were the disqualifications final?

The Guardian Council has the final say in who can run in elections, given that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is very unlikely to interfere, and there is still a third qualifications review remaining before the Guardian Council creates the finalized list of candidates. The first qualifications review was conducted by “Executive Committees” controlled by the Interior Ministry (and during which only 10 percent of candidates were disqualified). The Interior Ministry is part of President Rouhani’s cabinet, and it is not surprising that it showed a light touch in vetting. This second qualifications review that resulted in the mass disqualifications was conducted by Provincial Supervisory Committees, which operate under the Guardian Council’s oversight. It was the first opportunity for Guardian Council-controlled bodies to weigh in on the vetting process.

The Guardian Council itself is now conducting the third and final round of qualifications review. It will be examining the Provincial Supervisory Committees’ candidate list until February 5, when it will create another list of disqualified and qualified candidates and privately inform candidates of their results. Candidates whose qualifications have been dismissed by the Guardian Council then can file complaints -- to the Guardian Council itself -- from February 6 to 8. The Guardian Council investigates these complaints against its own decisions from February 9 to 15 before submitting a finalized list of approved candidates by February 16 to the Interior Ministry. Election day itself is February 26.


Who is protesting the results?

The current disqualifications have become such a prominent issue that President Hassan Rouhani addressed it during his January 17 press conference marking the nuclear deal’s implementation, promising reporters that he will “use all of his power” as president to compel the Guardian Council to address unjust disqualifications. Iranian news outlets have also reported that Larijani -- undoubtedly angered by the disqualification of his own party members -- and Rouhani will each meet with the Guardian Council to discuss the disqualifications.

Former president and current Expediency Discernment Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Dori Najafabadi, a former Intelligence Minister and senior member of the Assembly of Experts, have also publicly criticized the results. Rafsanjani noted that the extent of disqualifications has even dampened the celebratory vibe in the domestic political scene over the nuclear deal’s implementation.

Reformist candidates themselves have been putting pressure on Rouhani to intervene on their behalf as well. Ali Shakouri Rad, the Secretary General of the Reformist National Trust Party, stated bluntly, “The expectation exists. Rouhani has made promises on this issue, and his approach over the past two years shows that he lives up to his promises… He has promised that he will have talks with the Guardian Council in order to bring about the necessary conditions for people to participate in the elections.”


Will Rouhani succeed in reversing disqualifications?

Rouhani’s pressure on the Guardian Council may be successful in reversing a few Reformist disqualifications, and the Guardian Council may feel obliged to be more transparent in the reasoning it uses to disqualify candidates. The Guardian Council will still almost certainly uphold the vast majority of its disqualifications, as it has done in previous elections, in order to prevent the emergence of an influential Reformist bloc in Parliament. The Guardian Council will, after all, be considering complaints against its own decisions, and there is no higher body in the Islamic Republic to which to appeal—other than the Supreme Leader. But the Supreme Leader chose six of the Council’s members himself, while the other six were selected by the head of Iran’s judiciary, whom Khamenei also selected. Khamenei does not appear to be under such pressure yet that he will overturn the decisions of this body. He has also taken a directly combative stance against Rouhani that could indicate his refusal to interfere on Rouhani’s behalf; he downplayed the impact of the nuclear deal itself in a direct tweet to the president on January 19, stating, “Removal of sanctions alone is not enough for boosting economy and improving lives of people.”

Rouhani does not need a Reformist sweep in Parliament to benefit from the elections, however. He would be better positioned to advance his agenda in Parliament if his hardliner opponents lose even some of the seats they hold now to his supporters. The second round of qualifications review has nonetheless clarified that the vetting process will almost certainly dampen the benefits Rouhani could have reaped in the elections from the nuclear deal’s implementation. 

For more on the disqualification of candidates, see Michael Rubin's blog.

Please also read: Iran's 2016 elections: The process, the players, and the stakes