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 â€" Ayatollah Khamenei once reportedly even asked Iranians who disapprove of the regime to vote â€" 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 â€" beside basic requirements like not having a criminal record â€" 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 â€" the Council being the interpreter of laws â€" 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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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