What can we expect from the elections in Iran?

What can we expect from the elections in Iran?

On February 26th, Iran will be holding elections for both the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Assembly of Experts. Elections to each of these bodies will be important for the future direction of Iran but for different reasons.

The upcoming elections in Iran will have a significant impact on international investment and on the development of international business ties, as well as on the direction of Iran’s foreign policy. The elections for the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Parliament) will have a greater impact over the short-term, while the election for the Assembly of Experts is likely to exert a much larger influence in the long-term.

Parliamentary election

The parliamentary elections will be significant as a measure of popular support in Iran for Rouhani’s policies. It will also serve as a referendum on the recent nuclear negotiations, which ended international sanctions.

Still, no direct correlation between popular support and the success of prospective candidates exists because, as is the case for all elected offices in Iran, prior to being put on the ballot prospective candidates are vetted by the Guardian Council to determine their suitability for office. The vetting process is intended to eliminate candidates without the proper educational or experiential qualifications from taking part, but the system is frequently used to direct outcomes by preventing would-be candidates with views in opposition to those of the Guardian Council from running.

In this parliamentary election cycle 12,123 people filed to be candidates and 5,894 were deemed to be unqualified. Because the majority of reformists have been eliminated by this vetting process, Mohammad Reza Aref, a leading reformist politician, has announced that a joint list of candidates will be released with together with the ‘Moderate-Conservatives’ in order to be able to compete with the ‘Conservatives’.

A leading figure in the ‘Moderate-Conservative’ faction is Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani who has formed an alliance with Rouhani. It is important to recognize that all candidates regardless of their status as ‘Reformist’, ‘Moderate-Conservative’, or ‘Conservative’ will share certain views which are written into Iran’s constitution, such as a belief in Iran’s system of Islamic government and a general attitude of non-alignment towards the foreign policies of the world’s superpowers.

In addition to voting based on their assessment of Rouhani, the other primary areas of concern for voters will be economic recovery, unemployment, housing costs, government corruption, and greater social and political freedom. The outcome of the election will determine how effective Rouhani will be able to be in carrying out his policy goals over the final year of his term.

Iran will hold its next presidential election in the summer of 2017 and it is expected that Rouhani will run for re-election. For Rouhani to be successful in 2017 he will have to have made a good start on reinvigorating the economy, lowering unemployment, and clamping down on corruption and for these he will need a supportive parliament.

Possible outcomes of Iran’s parliamentary election

The jointly listed candidates of the ‘Reformists and the Moderate-Conservatives’ will do well in the upcoming elections.

The joint listing will allow ‘Moderate-Conservatives’ to benefit from the popular backing of ‘Reformists’, while the ‘Reformists’ will gain influence in the next parliament through the alliance. However, due to the disqualification of prospective ‘Reformist’ candidates, the next parliament will be more conservative than it might have been. Rouhani, who has built ties to the ‘Moderate-Conservatives’ through his alliance with Larijani, will have enough support in Parliament that he will be at least moderately successful in implementing his policies, giving him a good chance at winning next year’s presidential contest. If these ties are able to be maintained over the short to medium term, continued development of investment and trade should be expected.

There will be pushback from conservatives in areas where there appears to be significant western cultural elements perceived as the exertion or infiltration of soft power.

An overwhelming win by a ‘conservative’ majority is very unlikely in these parliamentary elections, however such a win would likely mean less integration of Iran into the global economy and increased barriers to investment in Iran resulting from conservatives’ concerns about foreign cultural influence as well as concerns about protecting large sectors of the Iranian economy that came under the control of conservative elements of Iranian society (including both the clerical establishment and the Revolutionary Guard) during the international sanctions.

Assembly of Experts election

The Assembly of Experts is a naturally more conservative body than the parliament because it is made up of clerics who have reached a level of expertise in Islamic law, which allows them to issue legal opinions on their own authority. The candidates are usually high level clerics from other areas of the government, prayer leaders at important Mosques, or professors at Islamic seminaries.

A number of well-known members of the clerical-political establishment are running including President Rouhani, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Chairman of the Guardian Council Ahmad Jannati, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, and Head of the Judiciary Sadeq Larijani. Nine conservative candidates are running unopposed, and of 505 clerics who submitted themselves as prospective candidates 161 were approved.

The majority of those who were disqualified are thought to be ‘reformist’, but several key figures allied to ‘reformist’ and ‘moderate-conservative’ have been qualified to run.

Possible outcomes of the Assembly of Experts election

The outcome of the Assembly of Experts election will be in favor of the ‘conservatives’ particularly those aligned with the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, which is a powerful conservative clerical political group. However the ‘reformist’ and ‘moderate-conservative’ candidates who have made it on to the ballot should expect to do very well.

Because several of the key figures aligned with Rouhani have been approved, this will limit the power conservatives in the assembly. Usually elections for the Assembly of Experts provoke little popular reaction, but because of the Supreme leader’s age and poor health, it is more likely than not that this sitting of will chose the next Supreme Leader of Iran.

In the short-term this election will change very little, but their choice of the next Supreme Leader will have a determining influence on every aspect of political, social, and economic life in Iran. The list of the 88 candidates who are successful in the election will almost certainly contain the name of Iran’s next Supreme Leader.

About Author

Kevin Graham

Kevin Graham is a political risk analyst and historian of the Middle East with a background in Arabic and Persian translation. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and History, with a minor in Persian, from the University of California Berkeley, as well as an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago and an MSt in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford.