Iran 2016 Elections Tracker: Parliament and the Assembly of Experts
AEI’s Critical Threats Project has been tracking election developments closely in Iran. This page will be continually updated with analyses of the results and their significance as the elections progress.
Iran's Critical Elections: The Basics
AEI’s Critical Threats Project has been tracking election developments closely in Iran. This page will be continually updated with analyses of the results and their significance as the elections progress. It was last updated on May 31, 2016.
Reformists did not “sweep” the Iranian elections on February 26 for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts. Hardliners suffered humiliating losses in both bodies. Two of the Assembly’s most notorious hardliners, including its current chairman, were defeated while hardliner parliamentarians lost every seat in Tehran to a moderate-reformist bloc formed days before the election. But the pro-Rouhani bloc did not win a majority in either body, and by no means will all members who ran on pro-Rouhani lists actually support the president’s policies. Iranians voted for the reformist idea, but the vetting process prevented them from electing a reformist parliament.
These elections matter, but within limits. Parliament plays a significant role in the Iranian political system. It controls the state budget, although not the large resources belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or the supreme leader. Parliamentary support is essential to implementing many of the economic reforms Rouhani has proposed, but it is insufficient in itself. The Guardian Council wields veto power over legislation and may block attempts at major reform that make it through Parliament. Iranian politics are nonetheless likely to become more divisive and interesting in the near future, given the wider range of views and competing blocs now represented in Parliament. The Assembly of Experts will be an important voice in fulfilling its constitutionally mandated role of appointing the next Supreme Leader, even if it is not the only body that influences the decision. Stay tuned.
For daily updates on Iranian politics, subscribe to the Iran News Round Up. For detailed information on the vetting process for electoral candidates, see: Iran's 2016 elections: The process, the players, and the stakes.
PARLIAMENT RE-ELECTS ALI LARIJANI AS PARLIAMENT SPEAKER
By Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, May 31, 2016
Parliament elected conservative Ali Larijani as interim speaker on May 29 and permanent speaker on May 31. He defeated Mohammad Reza Aref, a reformist who had never served in Parliament before this election. Larijani’s retention of the speakership is not a surprise, nor is it a defeat for President Hassan Rouhani. It is, however, an indication that the new parliament is not as fundamentally different from the old one as some Western observers have suggested.
This legislature is the first split parliament Iran has elected since 1996, as no faction has won a majority of seats (reformists and moderates are generally thought to have around 120 and conservatives roughly 90, leaving about 80 independents). The large block of independent members forms a vital swing group, and it is not clear how they will vote. The election for parliament speaker did not definitively answer that question. Larijani won 173 votes to Aref’s 103 on May 29, indicating that he received significant support from independents. Senior reformist politician Massoud Pezeshkian beat several principlist candidates in the race for first deputy speaker on May 29 with 154 votes, however, meaning at least 30 parliamentarians outside of the reformist-moderate list voted for him.
Some in the reformist-moderate faction voted for Larijani as well. They appear to believe that Larijani is best suited to managing the split Parliament’s strong principlist minority, while still having an excellent working relationship with the Rouhani administration. Pezeshkian had predicted that Larijani would attract reformist votes because he does not act in a “factional” way or appear to favor his own principlist camp over other factions as speaker. Larijani also played a vital role in short-circuiting efforts by hardline principlists to delay Parliament’s approval of the nuclear deal and use it to attack the president. The vote is neither a win nor a loss for Rouhani -- who is himself a centrist politician, not a reformist -- for this reason.
The internal election also underscored yet again parliamentarians’ freedom from party lines. Parliamentarians are not bound to vote with the factions that endorsed them during the elections. A reformist parliamentarian elected in Tehran told reporters that 50 parliamentarians endorsed by the reformist-moderate faction voted for Larijani. This election was therefore the first demonstration of parliamentarians from the reformist-moderate list breaking the ranks to vote for a “conservative” cause. It will not be the last.
The desire for a nuclear deal had brought together a diverse group of reformists, moderates, and pragmatic conservatives-- like Larijani-- in support of Rouhani’s agenda. After Larijani’s re-election as parliament speaker, it is still unclear how firmly that coalition will hold.
ASSEMBLY OF EXPERTS ELECTS HARDLINE CHAIRMAN
By Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, May 24, 2016
The election of one of the Assembly of Experts’ most hardline members as its chairman underscores the fact that the February 26 elections did not upend an existing balance of power or fundamentally displace the Assembly’s conservative old guard.
The Assembly of Experts elected 89-year-old Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati as its new chairman -- a two-year appointment -- with 51 votes, well above a majority of the 86 members present. The number of votes for Jannati also demonstrates the fluidity of Iranian political factions. Press coverage almost always oversimplifies these elections as a balance scale, with hardliners on one scale and reformers on the other. At least 17 of the 52 “reformist-backed” Assembly members must have also voted for Jannati, however.
A myopic focus on the failure of several leading hardliners to retain their seats in the February 26 elections likely distorted outsider understanding of how the body would vote. The losses of both outgoing chairman Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi and senior cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi were publicly humiliating blows to hardliners and condemned by many in the hardliner establishment as a foreign plot to dilute Iran’s revolutionary character. Jannati himself placed last in Tehran, his district, barely making the cut-off for a seat. These losses and near-losses, however, did not fundamentally reduce the influence of the old guard.
Other members of the Assembly’s presiding board have a conservative background as well. Combatant Clergy Association head Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani and Guardian Council member Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi were elected first deputy and second deputy respectively. Each won his seat comfortably with over 60 votes.
Other actors in Iran besides the Assembly of Experts and its chairman, such as the IRGC, will likely influence the selection of the next Supreme Leader. That reality does not make these elections negligible. In a statement issued after the internal elections, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wrote that the Assembly’s responsibility is to “carefully and comprehensively guard the Islamic and revolutionary identity of the country’s ruling establishment.” Jannati is not one to take that responsibility lightly.
UNOFFICIAL RUNOFF ELECTION RESULTS PRODUCE DIVIDED PARLIAMENT
By Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, April 30, 2016
Headlines are already claiming a “win” for President Hassan Rouhani in the April 29 runoff elections for Parliament. It is important to qualify the results.
The reformist-moderate bloc generally united behind Rouhani looks poised to clinch a plurality in the 290-member Parliament, but it has missed a majority of 146 seats. Unofficial runoff election results indicate that reformists and moderates won 32 seats, principlists won 19, and independents won 17. This places the total factional composition of Parliament at approximately 120 reformists and moderates, 95 principlists, and 75 independents. Debate over candidates’ true political affiliations often produces different counts, given Iran’s lack of formal political parties. (The hardline Fars News Agency tallied the new Parliament’s total factional composition at 126 principlists, 112 reformists, 42 independents, and 9 moderates, for example, although their count likely overstates the number of principlists significantly.)
The Guardian Council must confirm these election results before they are official. The final results are unlikely to vary significantly from these preliminary results, however.
Several points about the new Parliament are clear without the official results. Reformists now hold the most sway in Parliament since 2004, when they last held a majority. Both reformists and principlists will be significant powerbrokers in this new Parliament, but independents will shape whether legislation is stymied or passed on a case-by-case basis, given that no faction has a majority. Rouhani has a far friendlier Parliament, but it will not be a rubber stamp.
Reformists will also likely use their plurality to argue that their candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, deserves to become the next parliament speaker. This pits Aref against current speaker Ali Larijani, a principlist who ran as an independent in the elections and has a good working relationship with Rouhani. Aref’s supporters have publicly discussed the prospect of Aref challenging Larijani. Other rumors have claimed that Aref will become deputy parliament speaker if Larijani remains parliament speaker. This is the next battle to watch.
Hardliner Edge Dulled, but not Removed, in Assembly of Experts Elections
By Marie Donovan, March 3, 2016
The reformist/moderate bloc friendly to President Hassan Rouhani managed to dull but not remove the hardliner/conservative bloc’s edge in Iran’s Assembly of Experts. Some of the most aggressively hardline candidates, including the assembly's current chairman, were ousted, but the overall make-up of the 88-member body remains conservative-leaning.
Iran’s odd electoral system makes determining the ideological breakdown of the assembly difficult. Rouhani and his ally, former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, included candidates on their list without obtaining their permission--sometimes over the objections of the candidates--and a large number of candidates therefore appeared on both the moderate/reformist and hardliner/conservative lists.
The rough outlines of the outcome nevertheless point to a predominantly conservative body. Candidates appearing only on the hardliner/conservative lists won 27-38 seats, those appearing only on reformist/moderate lists won 13-20 seats, independents won approximately six seats, and candidates endorsed by both the hardliner/conservatives and reformist/moderates won approximately 27-35 seats.
The hardliner/conservative bloc thus holds a comfortable 7-18 seat lead over the reformist/moderate bloc among clearly-identified members. The balance of the assembly will therefore rest on the candidates who appeared on both lists. The Guardian Council’s heavy-handed vetting and reports of the reasons behind the inclusion of hardliners on the moderate/reformist lists suggest that this group of dual-endorsed winners will break in the conservatives’ favor.
The Guardian Council disqualified many reformist and moderate candidates for the Assembly of Experts elections. The reformist/moderate bloc then appears to have focused on pushing the harshest hardliners out rather than on supporting ideologically similar candidates (since the latter were not allowed to run). Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and President Hassan Rouhani, for example, reportedly put the more conservative Ayatollah Ali Mohavedi Kermani on their respective moderate lists in order to push out Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who were endorsed only by the hardliner/conservatives. This tactic succeeded in its aim, but it would not fundamentally alter the ideological composition of the assembly.
It may not even sideline Ayatollahs Yazdi and Mesbah Yazdi from shaping the succession. Both remain powerful and influential clerics with many connections into the assembly itself and throughout the regime. They will not be able to cast their votes, but neither will they be silenced. Since the methods by which candidates for supreme leader will be selected and placed before the assembly are by no means clear, the exclusion of these two clerics from a body that likely remains heavily conservative may have little impact on the succession.
ELECTION RESULTS GIVE ROUHANI NEW OPPORTUNITIES--AND CHALLENGES
By Paul Bucala, February 28, 2016
President Hassan Rouhani won an important victory in the parliamentary elections. His reformist and moderate allies have gained enough seats to challenge the influence of hardliners in Parliament. The effect of the president’s success in the elections on Iranian policy will likely be limited, however, because the nature of the regime severely constrains the influence of parliament and the president on key issues, and because the Reformist-moderate alliance that won many seats is not unified behind Rouhani’s approach to governing.
What has Rouhani achieved? He will generate much-needed political capital from the elections, which were viewed as a referendum on the policies of his first two years in office. A strengthened moderate bloc will also help insulate the administration from parliamentary efforts to impeach ministers or scuttle legislation—a tactic that the hardliners tried with the nuclear deal.
But the regime’s unelected institutions rather than Parliament ultimately control policy-making. The hardliner-dominated Guardian Council wields absolute authority over the legislative process, for example. Rouhani will need approval from the Council if he hopes to implement his broader political agenda, aimed at reforming elements of Iran’s political and economic structure. The determination with which the Council attempted to prevent Rouhani’s allies from gaining seats suggests that it will interpose many obstacles in his efforts to change policy.
It is unclear, furthermore, whether this electoral success will prove a high-water mark for Rouhani’s influence. Rouhani capitalized on a broad consensus among regime leaders to push through the nuclear deal and sanctions relief, the cornerstone of his 2013 platform. But Rouhani’s approaches to other challenges facing the regime do not enjoy similar levels of support. Deep fissures remain on core economic issues as the contentious debate over the details of the 6th Five-Year Development Plan highlighted. That plan establishes the Islamic Republic’s political and economic objectives over the next five years, and the debate showed clearly that Rouhani’s reforms are by no means unanimously accepted even among centrists.
Nor is there any guarantee that the newly-elected “reformist-moderate” parliamentarians will comply with Rouhani’s wishes or act as a unitary voting bloc in the next Parliament. Alliances formed during Iranian elections rarely represent cohesive policy platforms and tend to collapse soon after the votes are counted. The members of this “reformist-moderate” bloc range from figures with strong reformist credentials to recently defected Principlists. A former Vice-President under Reformist President Mohammad Khatami was featured on the same moderate list as the current head of the “moderate Principlist” faction for example. It is unlikely that these “moderate Principlists” will support all of Rouhani’s legislative proposals, even if many of them supported his pragmatic approach to the nuclear talks.
Rouhani has clearly won an impressive victory the elections. It remains less clear, however, if he will be able to capitalize on these gains to push through other elements of his agenda in advance of the 2017 presidential elections. And if Rouhani tries to flex his muscles too much, he will be pitted against the ultimate power-broker in Tehran, the Supreme Leader himself.
WHO IS WINNING IRAN'S ELECTIONS?
By Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, February 28, 2016
A “reformist-moderate” coalition generally friendly toward President Hassan Rouhani appears to have made striking gains in Iran’s parliamentary elections, including winning all 30 seats in Tehran and thereby knocking out a number of well-established and staunch hardliners. These elections are not a purely reformist victory, however, despite significant gains and media reports that they have “swept” the elections. Many (but far from all) candidates described as reformists in both the parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections are actually moderates who were endorsed by reformist leaders as a fallback after the Guardian Council disqualified most of the reformists trying to run. These results are thus very positive for Rouhani, but their implications for his ability to govern remain unclear. A few key points:
- No single faction appears likely to win an outright majority of 146 seats, although the hardliners have definitely lost their near-absolute dominance of the legislature.
- As many as 40 parliamentary seats remain contested between different factions, and the outcome of these races will not be known until after run-off elections scheduled for late April.
- Reformists will likely have to water-down their agenda to keep the moderates with them. The ideological breadth of the reformist-moderate list is wide. Parliamentarians Behrouz Nemati and Kazem Jalali, for example, were elected on this list despite having Principlist backgrounds. Principlist parliamentarian Ali Motahari has also joined ranks with the reformists despite the fact that his outlook and rhetoric are often far from theirs. Iranian politics do not have hard party lines, and this election cycle has blurred those lines further. It is far from clear, therefore, how these conservative members of the reformist-moderate list will speak and vote once seated.
All these numbers could still change as the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council release finalized results within the next few days. Hardliners have clearly lost badly. It will be months before it is clear exactly how badly, and possibly longer still until we can see the real implications of this election.
Rouhani's "Friends of Moderation" are not all fans of moderation
By Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, February 26, 2016
Iranians are voting today, but Rouhani’s strategy to shape the future of the Islamic Republic will have to be based on a conservative Assembly of Experts. He had little choice following the mass disqualification of Reformist candidates. The electoral list he created to implement this strategy in the Assembly looks impressive on paper—except that it is already emerging that several conservative Principlists he included refuse to participate in it.
The nationwide candidate list that Rouhani endorsed, called “Friends of Moderation,” includes 70 of the 161 Assembly candidates. Many are not known as moderates and were unhappy about even being associated with the list. Ayatollah Ali Movahedi Kermani – a prominent defender of the Guardian Council’s anti-Reformist vetting process – told reporters, “They didn’t ask me. They put me on [the list] by themselves.” Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri also complained, “No one spoke with me about it… I am saying clearly that I am a Principlist. I believe that the correct way is Principlist, and the way of others, like Reformists or moderates, is the incorrect way.”
The Assembly’s old guard is heavily represented on the list as well. Nearly 40 of the endorsed candidates are incumbents and likely to be reelected. At least 16 of the candidates are either Friday prayer leaders in their provincial capitals or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s official representatives there. Khamenei appoints both positions, underscoring their connections to the Supreme Leader’s personal network.
Rouhani’s list shows that his post-election strategy will likely be to lure more conservative Assembly members to his side while largely abandoning hope of significant Reformist gains. Rouhani has had success with this approach in Parliament; the support of conservative speaker Ali Larijani for the nuclear deal was essential to getting it through the legislature without allowing the hardline Principlists to savage Rouhani too badly. It is far less clear that a similar approach will work in the Assembly of Experts, which will ostensibly choose the next Supreme Leader. Today’s vote may reveal more about Rouhani’s prospects.
Hopeful Reformists Aim For A 2013 Election Redux
By Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, February 22, 2016
Reformist parliamentary candidates are largely out of the running in the February 26 election, but their supporters are not. Reformist leaders have made it clear that they still intend to influence the next Parliament’s makeup despite their disqualifications by voting as many non-hardliners into office as possible. This strategy is significant for President Hassan Rouhani’s centrist camp, which may be propelled by Reformist votes to win a significant number of additional seats. Hardliners will likely dominate this election cycle, but Rouhani can still emerge from the elections with a more cooperative Parliament if Reformists manage to follow through on their call for a high voter turnout.
Rouhani and his centrists are saddled between Reformists and more hardline Principlists. The lines separating factions are fluid, however, and Reformists and centrists have supported each other in the recent past and in this election cycle. Reformist leader Mohammad Reza Aref announced the formation of a new coalition of centrist and Reformist candidates last week. At a campaign event on February 21, he also called for Iranians to “continue in the direction of the 2013 elections” – a reference to the presidential elections of that year, when Reformists voted for Rouhani, a candidate who was not their own, and helped win him the presidency.
Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a longstanding centrist leader, has also called for disqualified Reformists to channel their support into the next best candidate. He praised himself as an exemplary disqualified but engaged candidate. Rafsanjani had endorsed Rouhani after he was disqualified from the 2013 presidential elections – thereby “introducing” Rouhani to society, in Rafsanjani’s own words, and giving him the publicity he needed to win.
This next Parliament will not be as supportive of Rouhani as it could have been if the Guardian Council had not disproportionately disqualified almost all Reformist candidates. There will be no dramatic upheaval in Iranian politics this election cycle. For Rouhani, however, there may very well be a subtle victory despite the uneven playing field – particularly if the 2013 election repeats itself.
The Assembly of Experts Race Gets Some Competition (Sort of)
By Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, February 22, 2016
Six candidates for the Assembly of Experts have switched their electoral districts a week after the Guardian Council finalized its list of approved candidates and just a few days before the February 26 election. The candidates moved from more populated districts – particularly Tehran and Esfahan – to smaller districts with either unopposed or nearly unopposed races. Their transfers likely decrease the number of districts with unopposed candidates from six to zero. The Guardian Council agreed to the transfers, possibly in an attempt to give the illusion of ideological choice to voters, although there are no official residency restrictions for Assembly candidates.
The transfers are unlikely to impact the composition of the Assembly of Experts, which is still shaping up to be a largely conservative body. Many of the candidates who transferred into unopposed districts are running against incumbents who are expected to win. The old guard will likely still be in charge in the next Assembly – regardless of any retroactive move by the Guardian Council or candidates themselves to reengineer the race into something more competitive.
Guardian Council Releases Final List of Parliamentary Candidates, Regime Prepares for Unrest
By Marie Donovan, February 18, 2016
The Guardian Council confirmed 6,229 of 12,123 candidates to run in the parliamentary elections in its final round of qualifications review. A total of 38 candidates out of the 147 who filed a complaint had their disqualifications overturned in this final round of review. President Hassan Rouhani signaled that he would not continue his public complaints against the vetting body over its disproportionate disqualification of Reformist candidates several days earlier. His comments suggest that he has accepted the likelihood of (yet another) Conservative-dominated Parliament after the February 26 elections.
The Guardian Council disqualified most Reformist candidates who registered, leaving Reformist politicians in a quandary. Prominent Reformist politician Mohammad Reza Aref announced that the Reformists will release a joint list of endorsed candidates with moderate parties rather than a Reformist-only list. This approach will likely allow Reformists greater influence in the new parliament than they could otherwise expect to have considering how few seats they are likely to win. It is another indication that key Rouhani allies have accepted their pre-emptive electoral defeat at the hands of the Guardian Council and are trying to establish the basis for bargaining from a very weak position.
The regime remains concerned about the possibility that these electoral controversies could generate public demonstrations and unrest, however, despite the apparent acceptance of defeat by Rouhani and his Reformist allies. IRGC Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari emphasized the importance of continued coordination between the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), the IRGC, and Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) against ongoing security threats, and even pointedly praised the “coordination, unity, and cooperation” of the three bodies during the two hallmark periods of civil unrest in recent Iranian history - the 1999 student protests and the 2009 Green Movement. LEF Commander Brigadier General Hossein Ashtari has similarly promised that the police will “certainly confront” any candidates who attempt to hold “street meetings or gatherings.” These comments, made so close to the elections themselves, are clearly meant as warnings to the Iranian people even as they indicate the regime’s continued fear of any street demonstrations after the traumatic experiences of 2009. Protests are unlikely this election cycle, given the surrender of Rouhani and the Reformists. But the regime is still worried. Which is interesting.
Guardian Council finalizes candidate list for Assembly of Experts
By Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, February 10, 2016
The Guardian Council upheld its disqualification of Hassan Khomeini, a Reformist-inclined grandson of former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in its final list of approved Assembly of Experts candidates on February 10. The Guardian Council claimed that Hassan Khomeini does not possess an adequate level of Islamic knowledge “in order to discern the qualifications for the next supreme leader.” The Guardian Council’s disqualification was more probably part of its successful broader campaign to limit the number of non-hardliner candidates in the elections. The number of approved candidates remains equal to the number of available seats in several districts after this final review, and most of these unopposed candidates are embedded at least to some extent in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s personal network.
The Guardian Council did confirm both Rouhani and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the pragmatic Expediency Discernment Council chairman, in its final list. The absence of a significant number of other Reformist or Reformist-inclined candidates like Khomeini – in addition to the unopposed hardliners – nonetheless indicates that the Guardian Council remains actively dedicated to preventing a power shift away from hardliners after the nuclear deal. That’s a battle that the Guardian Council will not allow itself to lose.
Resurgent Reformists in the parliamentary elections? Not quite.
By Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, February 10, 2016
The Guardian Council, the body overseeing the vetting process for Iran’s ongoing parliamentary elections, has “rekindled” hopes that the Reformists may be making a comeback. After reportedly disqualifying 99 percent of Reformist candidates in a previous round of vetting, the Guardian Council recently announced that it has reversed the disqualifications of 1,500 unnamed candidates. These additions raise the overall number of approved candidates so far to around 6,175 -- an underwhelming 50 percent of the original 12,123 registered candidates.
It is impossible to assess the precise number of Reformist candidates until the Guardian Council releases its final list of approved candidates on February 16, but Reformist reactions have been muted, possibly indicating that the Guardian Council’s additional 1,500 candidates are not overwhelmingly Reformist and will not dramatically shift the balance of power in the elections away from hardliners. Mohammad Reza Aref, the former First Vice President under Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, bluntly told reporters that consultations with the Guardian Council were “unsuccessful” in overturning the disqualifications of key Reformist figures. Prominent Reformist newspaper Shargh, meanwhile, published an editorial claiming that the “situation of the Reformist camp does not appear hopeful” despite the overturned disqualifications. The most notable optimistic remark came from former Reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who said that “a glimmer of hope remains” that additional Reformist candidates have been confirmed.
Several politicians of multiple stripes have asserted that the mere presence of Reformist candidates, never mind their numbers or strength, in the elections should be enough to keep Reformists happy. When a reporter asked Principlist Coalition Spokesman Gholam Ali Haddad Adel on February 9 whether the elections will be competitive with the current number of Reformist candidates, he replied, “The Reformists have said themselves that they have enough candidates to create a list [of endorsed candidates]… Don’t feel sorry for them.” Hadi Ghaffari, a member of the Reformist Assembly of the Forces of Imam's Line, similarly stated, “Despite the disqualification of most of our proposed candidates, we still have candidates in 95 percent of the country’s districts, fortunately.”
Any possibility that the Guardian Council showed the Reformists mercy is still good news for Iranian civil society and for President Hassan Rouhani’s agenda. Rouhani is not a Reformist and does not claim to be one, but the Reformists are his natural allies in a combative Parliament.
A resurgent Reformist party in Iran’s new Parliament would not catalyze change in several of the most worrisome aspects of Iranian policy, however. A Parliament dominated by Rouhani supporters would be unlikely to constrain provocative Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps behavior in the Persian Gulf successfully. Support for Iranian military involvement in Syria also crosses party lines; a recent University of Maryland poll of Iranian public opinion found that a solid majority of 63 percent supports sending Iranian military personnel to Syria. An overwhelming 80 percent “approve of the role” Iran is currently playing in Syria. That is not something that a Reformist parliament would be able -- or even necessarily want -- to fix.
Before Iran's Critical Elections: The Basics
February 10, 2016
Iran’s February 26 elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts will likely be a turning point for the regime. The Assembly of Experts will select the next supreme leader. Parliament plays an important but often-underestimated role in the Iranian political system. It controls the state budget, although not the large resources belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or the supreme leader. It can also be a powerful check on the president through its power to fire his minsters. President Hassan Rouhani and his allies have been hoping to ride the wave of the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions to increase their influence in these powerful bodies, and some in the West have sought to help them by managing sanctions relief to Rouhani’s advantage. Those efforts appear to have fallen short and possibly backfired, as the managers of Iran’s managed democracy have used their powers to vet candidates to exclude thousands who would probably have supported Rouhani.
Electoral candidates in both elections must pass several rounds of qualifications review by the Guardian Council, the body that oversees the vetting process and whose 12 members are essentially appointed by the supreme leader. The Guardian Council is currently investigating complaints from disqualified parliamentary candidates in its final review round from February 9-15. It has completed its final review for the Assembly of Experts elections and released its finalized list of Assembly candidates on February 10. Assembly candidates now have around two weeks to campaign; parliamentary candidates will have one week.
The composition of Parliament may very well shift further in Rouhani’s favor, but the extent to which his allies will be able to gain seats has already been significantly hampered by the Guardian Council. Similarly, the Assembly of Experts is shaping up to be comprised of members whose ideology is more aligned with Khamenei’s than Rouhani’s. Stay tuned.
For detailed information on the vetting process, see: Iran's 2016 elections: The process, the players, and the stakes. For profiles of the candidates likely to run unopposed in the Assembly of Experts, see: Unopposed Candidates in the Assembly of Experts Election.