The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk(*) for the reader's awareness.
Hardliners will likely control Iran’s parliament after legislative elections on February 21 and promote increasingly aggressive and authoritarian policies. Iranian hardliners—who call themselves “principlists”—generally oppose close ties with the West and support significant state involvement in Iranian society. A parliament dominated by hardliners will increasingly prioritize funding the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps under US sanctions and further enable brutal crackdowns against protesters.
Principlists are interfering in the election to replace so-called “moderates” with more hardline figures. Iran’s ultraconservative Guardian Council disqualified an unusually high number of moderates from the elections. The council is responsible for vetting and approving electoral candidates and includes six clerics appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and six legislators elected by parliament. The council historically disqualifies large numbers of candidates, but its most recent disapprovals are abnormally high. The Supreme Reformist Council for Policy-Making is not running candidates in Tehran because the Guardian Council disapproved its major nominees.
The Guardian Council’s criteria for disqualifying candidates was likely subjective and unequally enforced. The council *claimed most disapprovals were due to corruption—which is endemic in parliament—and a lack of commitment to the Islamic Republic.
This is part of a hardliner effort to leverage domestic economic grievances to remove moderates from power since the Dey Protests in 2017–18. Anti-regime demonstrators decried government mismanagement and corruption and protested again in November 2019. Hardliners argued President Hassan Rouhani’s government could not manage the economy and impeached senior administration officials in mid-2018 in response to the protests. Hardliners—led by Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi—later arrested political opponents in 2019, ostensibly to combat corruption.
A hardliner-dominated legislature would likely elect a hardline parliament speaker. The current moderate parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, has held office since 2008 and *announced in November 2019 he is not running for reelection. Larijani has been an ally to Rouhani and supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Parliament is institutionally weak, but the parliament speaker is an ex officio member of Iran’s top security and economic decision-making bodies—the Supreme National Security Council and Supreme Economic Coordination Council. Parliament does, however, influence key processes such as approving the fiscal budget and international accords such as the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
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The Guardian Council disqualified an unusually high number of moderate and reformist candidates from competing in the parliamentary elections on February 21. The Supreme Reformist Council for Policy-Making is not running candidates in Tehran because the Guardian Council disapproved its major nominees. The council also barred 90 incumbents, including some conservatives who have broken from hardliner positions. The council disqualified conservative Ali Motahari, who Radio Farda described as “known for challenging hardliners including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views.”
The Guardian Council’s criteria for disqualifying candidates was likely subjective and unequally enforced. The council *attributed disapprovals primarily to “economic corruption, moral corruption, and opposition to sovereignty” on January 12. Expediency Discernment Council member Ahmad Tavakkoli *argued the Guardian Council’s disapproval of candidates was arbitrary on January 30.
Moderate leaders—including President Hassan Rouhani—attacked the Guardian Council in response and seek to curb its powers. Rouhani *stated the council was preventing competition among candidates and likened the elections to an “appointment” on January 27. Rouhani *ordered First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri to draft legislation to limit the council’s authorities over candidate vetting.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei supports the disqualifications and defended the Guardian Council. Khamenei implicitly *criticized Rouhani on February 5, saying comparing the elections to appointments reduced public confidence. Khamenei also called for high voter turnout. Khamenei likely aims to install a new hardline cohort into the political establishment while maintaining the façade of democracy in Iran. Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi stated questioning the electoral process aided Iran’s “enemies” and reduced public trust.
Hardliners also tried to persuade the public that the elections would still be competitive. Guardian Council Spokesperson Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei *stated the council approved over 7,000 candidates. Tabnak—a media outlet owned by hardliner and former IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezaei—*reported more reformists are participating in the elections than in previous cycles.
Forecast: Hardliners will likely take control of Iran’s parliament from the current moderate majority after the elections on February 21. The cyclical nature of Iranian elections further increases the likelihood moderates will perform poorly. Rouhani has failed to achieve many campaign promises, and the economy is in severe recession.
The regime’s heavy-handed interference will nonetheless fuel anti-regime sentiment in Iran but not likely cause the Islamic Republic’s collapse. Overt regime influence in the elections could catalyze anti-government protests, but the regime maintains the will to kill protesters and is seeking greater control over Iran’s information space and security services in anticipation of future unrest.
Iran-EU Nuclear Talks
The EU is stalling bringing Iran’s nuclear deal violations to the UN Security Council. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell *met with Rouhani in Tehran on February 3 and later stated the EU will indefinitely extend the time limit to resolve the regime’s JCPOA breaches. Rouhani expressed Iran’s commitment to cooperating with the EU to preserve the JCPOA. Borrell stipulated this extension is contingent on Iran’s continued cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Borrell separately *met with Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
France, Germany, and the UK activated the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism on January 14 in response to Iran’s violations. The regime gave Europe a series of 60-day deadlines from May 2019 to January 2020 to offer Tehran economic deliverables in exchange for compliance with the JCPOA. Iran violated a different aspect of the JCPOA at the end of each deadline. France, Germany, and the UK agreed to “continuously postpone” imposing a time limit to resolve the dispute. The EU seeks to avoid bringing the dispute to the UN Security Council, which could lead to the reimposition of sanctions on Iran.