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Geopolitics

Iran Election: Five Questions To Understand What's At Stake

Walking past electoral posters in Tehran on Feb. 22
Walking past electoral posters in Tehran on Feb. 22
Alidad Vassigh

Iran is holding elections for two assemblies on Friday, the unicameral "Islamic" parliament (Majles) and the Assembly of Experts (Majles-e khobregan), a body of clerics and "experts" deemed versed enough in public affairs and laws to merit choosing, in time, the next supreme leader. It is the most important election in Iran since the 2013 presidential campaign that ushered in the reformist Hassan Rouhani.

Here are five key questions:

Do elections even matter in Iran?

It's fair to say that elections in post-revolutionary Iran tend to have less impact on the polity than they might in a Western state. In Iran, a notable chunk of power remains in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a discreet and less discreet coterie of soldiers, clerics, politicians and affairistes aligned with him. Which means an allegiance to the political line often qualified in international circles as "conservative."

While conservatives do not wield all the power, reformist elements in turn have no assurance that winning control of even key institutions will allow them to run the country as they please. Still, there is enough fluidity and shifting tendencies in Iran's power structure — Ayatollah Khamenei once reportedly even asked Iranians who disapprove of the regime to vote — to render such national elections worthy of our attention. Iran, in short, is not North Korea.

Are the polls a test for the reformist agenda of President Rouhani?

If a reformist or centrist majority prevails in the parliamentary election, it would strengthen Rouhani's hand in the economy, allowing the legislature and the government to collaborate on measures to liberalize the economy or "fight corruption," as reformists keep saying. Laws can be blocked by the 12-man Guardian Council, though if parliament insisted on pushing them through (and a reformist chamber might), these would be referred to the Expediency Council, an arbitrating body currently headed by Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a former president who backs Rouhani. As one reformist politician Ahmad Hakimipur wrote in the daily Shargh on Monday, voting for reformists would help create a more "efficient" parliament that would attend to people's real needs.

Who's running? Who's going to win?

Iranians viewing the election lists might not immediately identify them as reformist or hardliner, hence the need for clues like Rouhani's face (reformist list). The reformist daily Aftab-e Yazd published on Monday one of the main reformist lists aiming for parliament (30 proposed candidates) and the Experts (with Rouhani's face on top). This was being dubbed the Hope list, though mischievous opponents were already deriding it as the "British list," meaning presumably a list favored by foreign powers.

Many of the aspirants ordinary folk would consider bonafide reformists have already been disqualified by the Guardian Council, which vets all candidates ahead of elections. Often, those who manage to get past its filters are — beside basic requirements like not having a criminal record — those the Council feels have "impeccable" revolutionary credentials. Critics would say these remaining candidates are so diluted, neutral and obedient to the conservative status quo in their views and manner of expression, that they are not ultimately capable of true reform.

One personality recently barred from running for a seat in the Experts Assembly was Hassan Khomeini, a mild-mannered, mid-ranking cleric and grandson of the regime's late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He is not the only member of the Khomeini clan to have been disqualified in past elections. The Guardian Council considered him unfit for a seat, although probably not, officially, for the reformist affiliations media attribute to him. Reasons for disqualification are usually legal or at least legalistic — the Council being the interpreter of laws — and in "sensitive" cases, kept private, supposedly to safeguard the rejected aspirant's reputation. The rejection did not stop Khomeini from urging people to vote. "Boycotting the ballot boxes is not the solution," Shargh newspaper Monday quoted him as saying.

Will the elections affect the nuclear pact with the West?

Short answer: No, as foreign policy and strategic affairs are decided consensually under the Supreme Leader's guidance. The matter has effectively been resolved under the current, conservative parliament and reformists favor Iran's opening in any case.

How important is the Experts Assembly?

Eventually it will be. Ayatollah Khamenei is not about to retire, it seems, though there are constant rumors about the state of his health. The various political clans are thought to be already grooming possible candidates as a future supreme leader, which is a reminder of the importance of the Experts' composition. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani is often cited as a possible supreme leader, though he is 81 years old. The most conservative elements and the revolutionary guards are said to oppose him, but really, the tea leaves are doubly hard to read in Iranian politics. Just a few years ago, many considered him finished politically. Another cited as a possible supreme leader one day was the young Khomeini, presumably in part for the weight of his surname. For now, he's been shut out of the body that elects the leader, and will have to watch the Experts on television; or, like millions of Iranians, just switch over to the soccer match.

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👋 नमस्कार*

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[*Namaskār - Marathi, India]

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