Farzan Sabet
Farzan Sabet is a Nuclear Security Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and a doctoral candidate in international history at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He is also managing editor of IranPolitik, a website on Iranian politics.

Iran’s moderate alliance made gains in recent parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections. Composed of the country’s centrist and reformist political currents, this group refers to itself as moderate in the Iranian context to appeal to voters by painting its rivals as extremists. The new parliament is likely to be more supportive than the last parliament of President Hassan Rouhani on key issues such as the implementation of the nuclear deal with the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran’s reintegration into the global economy. The legislature is also likely to make fewer efforts to impeach the president’s cabinet ministers and may even be more open to expanding social and political freedoms.

The Assembly of Experts, which in theory can choose, supervise, and remove the country’s supreme leader, will most likely remain subservient to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the duration of his tenure. However, the newly elected body may choose the seventy-six-year-old supreme leader’s successor before its term ends. The elections left moderates with a core number of seats for a potential coalition to block a hardline successor to Ayatollah Khamenei, which could change the political trajectory of the Islamic Republic.

The election results confirm four important trends in Iranian politics that have been observable since the 2013 presidential contest: the continuing unity of the moderate alliance, disunity in the conservative alliance between the hardliners and the traditionalists, voter engagement with the electoral process, and the use of alternative media to overcome the state’s media monopoly during campaigns. If these trends hold, the hardliners—the powerful political current most opposed to the agenda of Rouhani and his moderate allies—might have to change their strategy to stem their own decline. This may mean overhauling their political platforms and reconfiguring their alliances to do better in elections, or, in the absence of such actions, relying even more heavily on coercion and unelected power centers such as the judiciary and the security forces.

The Role of Parliament and the Assembly

The Islamic Republic is a hybrid political system that is dominated by unelected power centers but that nonetheless allows limited popular participation through elected ones. This limited popular input, however, is restricted by the Guardian Council, a constitutional body that vets all aspiring candidates seeking elected national office for loyalty to the principles of the Islamic Republic. Even after the pool of acceptable candidates has been whittled down, the council can still change the election results.

The responsibilities of the 290-member parliament include passing legislation, ratifying international treaties and agreements, approving budgets, and confirming the appointments of cabinet ministers and the six jurists on the Guardian Council. Notable actions by the outgoing ninth parliament (2012–2016) included approving President Rouhani’s cabinet; impeaching his minister of science, research, and technology, Reza Faraji-Dana; and holding a very heated debate before ratifying the nuclear deal.

However, the Guardian Council has the authority to review all legislation to ensure compliance with the constitution and Islamic law. In 2003, for example, the council famously vetoed a parliamentary bill that would have limited its authority. Conflicts between the parliament and the Guardian Council can be taken before the Expediency Council, which can, and has in the past, ruled in favor of the legislature. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei wields enormous influence over the parliament as well and can restrict its decisionmaking through executive orders. In this context, the parliament is one of the Islamic Republic’s most influential elected power centers.

In theory, the Assembly of Experts, made up of 88 Islamic jurists elected every eight years, can choose, supervise, and remove the supreme leader, the most important figure in the Iranian political system. The supreme leader’s powers include appointing the heads of key unelected power centers, such as the judiciary, the security forces, and state media. He directly appoints six jurists to the twelve-member Guardian Council (and helps, indirectly, to appoint the others). And the supreme leader can intervene in all national affairs through executive orders, and oversees powerful economic entities accountable only to him that are ostensibly charitable foundations but behave like business conglomerates.

Yet, the assembly has not regularly exercised its powers, making only three important decisions since it was established, all of which took place in the first decade after the Iranian Revolution: it selected Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri to be deputy supreme leader in 1985, removed him from this position in 1989, and elevated Khamenei to the position of supreme leader that same year. While the assembly may have acted independently in the first case, it was a rubber stamp for then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the second case, and in the third instance the decision was engineered by then president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.1 Looking ahead, it is uncertain whether the assembly would choose Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor independently through internal deliberations, or whether it instead would be manipulated by external power centers such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Iran’s Political Currents

Though Iran lacks formal political parties, the country has highly factionalized politics that can be understood in terms of political currents. These currents are characterized by shifting coalitions of prominent figures, political groups, constituencies, and power centers that pursue common agendas. The four main political currents in Iran are the centrists, the reformists, the hardliners, and the traditionalists, which all fall into two broad alliances.2

The moderate alliance is made up of centrists and reformists who joined forces to support Rouhani in the 2013 presidential election. The centrists, known for balancing between the poles of Iranian politics, controlled the presidency under Rafsanjani from 1989 to 1997 and regained it in 2013 under Rouhani.3 They prioritize private-sector-driven economic growth, advocate for a less confrontational foreign policy than the hardliners, and are less concerned about enforcing Islamic mores than the conservative alliance. The centrists are led by Rouhani and Rafsanjani, and their most noteworthy constituencies are technocrats and entrepreneurs.

The reformists controlled the presidency under Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005 and the parliament under Mehdi Karroubi from 2000 to 2004. However, many reformists have been disqualified from participating in elections beginning with the 2004 parliamentary elections—a practice that intensified after the contested 2009 reelection of then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which resulted in a popular uprising known as the Green Movement.4 The reformists, who emphasize social and political freedoms, are led by Khatami who is currently subject to a media ban and prohibited from leaving the country, and have a large following among the country’s urban middle class and youth.

The conservative alliance, composed of hardliners and traditionalists deeply loyal to if not formally led by Ayatollah Khamenei, are also known as principlists for their professed adherence to revolutionary principles. Conservatives dominate all unelected power centers, including the Guardian Council, the judiciary, and the security forces. The hardliners support what they call a resistance economy that emphasizes self-reliance, as well as a hawkish foreign policy that stresses opposition to Western influence, and they reject greater political and social freedoms.5 Several prominent members of this current—such as Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel in the parliament and Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi in the Assembly of Experts—were casualties of the 2016 elections. Nevertheless, hardliners continue to dominate the senior cadres of power centers such as the IRGC and retain many passionate, pious constituents among the lower socioeconomic classes.

In contrast to their hardline counterparts, traditionalists favor a market-style economy and a less confrontational foreign policy. Led by figures such as the speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, among others, this current counts the conservative clergy and the traditional mercantile class among its significant constituent groups. Its members are the key power brokers in the parliament, in part because of their ability to work with both moderates and hardliners. While conservatives appeared unified and dominant in Iranian politics from 2005 to 2013, the traditionalists split with the hardliners over the latter’s controversial domestic and foreign policies and support for then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The 2016 Election Campaign

The main question leading up to the 2016 elections was whether the Guardian Council would disqualify nonconservative aspiring candidates on a mass scale.6 Moderates thus employed a strategy of mass-registering aspiring candidates in order to ensure that enough of them would make it through the vetting process to seriously contest the elections. Although the elections saw a record number of registrations, initially only 38.9 percent of aspiring candidates for the parliament and around 20 percent of those for the assembly were considered qualified to run as candidates by the Guardian Council.7 “Altogether 3,000 reformists registered in the country” for the parliamentary election, complained one centrist politician in a January 2016 interview, “from which only 30 people were qualified. On this basis only one percent of reformists have been approved.”8

After appeals, some prospective candidates were reinstated, perhaps due to Rouhani’s behind-the-scenes efforts. This brought the final tally of those qualifying to run for the parliament closer to half of all those who registered. These were nonetheless the lowest qualification rates in the history of the parliament and the assembly. In some electoral districts, no moderates qualified to become candidates. Prominent individuals who failed to qualify included not only moderates like the cleric Hassan Khomeini—the forty-three-year-old grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini— but also hardliners like Hamid Rasaei, a member of parliament who opposed the nuclear deal.

Given these circumstances, moderates tried to prevent hardliners from winning by mobilizing voters behind less hardline candidates in each electoral district; they relied on measures such as the novel use of alternative media to do so. Former president Khatami played a leading role in these efforts by releasing an online video calling on supporters to back a “list of hope,”9 a strategy that was very successful in Tehran, which has the most seats of any district. The Hope List was a moderate slate of candidates for the parliament that included widely unknown figures, and voters were encouraged to support the entire list, including several self-identified conservatives.

Meanwhile, the division between the hardliners and the traditionalists continued to deepen over economic and foreign policy disagreements. Larijani and the traditionalists refused to join the hardliners on the Principlist List, with many running as independents or on the Hope List instead. The resulting polarization of the election in many parts of the country between the moderate- and traditionalist-backed Hope List on one hand and the hardline Principlist List on the other sparked a higher voter turnout than otherwise may have been the case, which worked to the Hope List’s advantage.

A Complicated Electoral Outcome

In the parliamentary elections held on February 26, 2016, and the runoffs on April 29, Hope List candidates performed best, winning 125 of the 290 seats (43.1 percent). They were followed by Principlist List candidates who landed 82 seats (28.2 percent), independents who garnered 79 seats (27.2 percent), and religious minorities who secured five seats (1.7 percent).10 In all, eighteen women—nearly all from the Hope List—won seats, compared to only sixteen members of the clergy—a historic high and low, respectively, for each group.11 However, in an unprecedented move, the Guardian Council disqualified Hope List winner Minoo Khaleghi after she had already been deemed qualified and won a seat.12

The Hope List won a plurality of seats, but this does not necessarily mean that moderates will ultimately have a majority, due to uncertainty about how the independents will align themselves. Furthermore, the Hope List is a heterogeneous electoral front that includes centrists, reformists, and even traditionalists such as Ali Motahari, a social conservative who sided with Rouhani on the nuclear deal and who supports the end of the house arrest of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.13 Therefore, while moderates on the Hope List may form the largest parliamentary faction and have a majority on issues on which they and traditionalists are united, they are less likely to have the numbers on issues on which hardliners and traditionalists stand together.

As a result of the elections, the parliament will be more amenable to Rouhani’s agenda than the previous legislature—including the continued implementation of the nuclear deal, a commitment to integrating with the global economy, and to a lesser extent the expansion of social and political freedoms. It will also be less inclined to question and impeach his cabinet ministers. When it comes to the economy, the next legislature is likely to have the will to make big changes, for example by passing laws that better facilitate foreign investment, but its decisions may be blocked by the supreme leader, the Guardian Council, and the IRGC. These power centers may come to view such changes as threatening to Iranian independence and their own parochial interests, and they may seek to create a resistance economy that stresses self-reliance instead.14

In the Assembly of Experts elections held on February 26, the largely conservative Combatant Clergy Association performed best, followed by the more hardline Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, then the moderate Hope List, and, finally, the independents. However, partisan lines are more blurred in the assembly, which is made up of exclusively Islamic jurists, than in the parliament: 42 percent of elected assembly members appeared on all three of the main lists, because candidates could sign up for multiple lists or could even be placed on one without their consent.15 Despite moderates’ gains, there continues to be a conservative majority in the assembly, and even the Hope List is more conservative there than in parliament. Their assembly list includes controversial figures such as former intelligence ministers Mohammad Mohammadi-Nik (also known as Reyshahri) and Ghorban-Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, who have been associated with human rights violations, and conservatives such as Ayatollah Ali Movahedi-Kermani, who actually objected to being put on the list.

Although the Assembly of Experts is likely to remain compliant with the current supreme leader’s wishes for the duration of his tenure, the elections could set the stage for who becomes the next supreme leader. It is for this reason that in a recent speech to members of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Khamenei asked them to “contemplate God” given that there was “not a low possibility” that they would be called upon to choose a new leader in their upcoming term.16 A candidate for supreme leader must receive two-thirds of the votes in the assembly to win. This means that if internal deliberations, not external forces, are the deciding factor in choosing the next supreme leader, moderates in the Assembly of Experts now have a core number of seats to potentially build a coalition to block a hardline candidate. Although the hardline Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati secured the assembly’s top position, his inability to gain two-thirds of the votes there means this possibility remains open.

The poor performance of the Principlist List, meanwhile, weakens the influence of the hardliners in both the parliament and the assembly. Their near-total defeat in Tehran resulted in the loss of leading figures such as onetime speaker of parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel; the former chairman of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi; and the hardline ideologue Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi. Although the hardline Jannati has succeeded Yazdi as assembly chair, these results eliminated much of the hardliners’ elected senior leadership.

Conclusion

The 2016 elections resulted in important gains for moderates in the parliament and the Assembly of Experts, and this reaffirmed developments that have been visible in Iranian politics since 2013. The moderate alliance of centrists and reformists that backed Rouhani that year remained in place in this election, while the rifts in the conservative alliance deepened. The latter alliance showed early signs of weakening when hardliners and traditionalists could not close ranks behind a single candidate in the 2013 presidential election; this time around, they largely ran on separate lists in the parliament.

Popular engagement with electoral politics, which helped Rouhani win in 2013, continued to be a key factor this year. A majority of voters decided to participate in elections in their pursuit of the least-bad alternative. Even Green Movement leaders Mousavi and Karroubi, who remain under house arrest, supported participation and sought to cast votes.17 The traumatic experience of the Ahmadinejad era—with its profound corruption, mismanagement, repression, and international isolation—was the main impetus for this engagement.

Finally, access to alternative media—notably the Telegram messaging app—undermined the state’s monopoly on information and played an important role in mobilizing voters. The decision by Mahmoud Vaezi, the minister of information and communications technology, to resist hardline pressure to close alternative media entities during the campaign and on election day was very important in allowing the moderate campaign to succeed.18

The 2016 elections will have important consequences for the struggle between moderates and hardliners, which will culminate in the 2017 presidential election. Rouhani and his allies are under pressure to deliver on their campaign promises, especially demands to translate the much-hyped nuclear deal into economic benefits for Iranians and to take tangible steps to expand freedoms. Hardliners have downplayed the positive economic benefits of the nuclear deal and have launched a campaign against what they have dubbed Western infiltration of Iran’s economy, politics, and society. This is to maintain tight security controls over Iranian society and to limit the extent to which political and cultural freedoms expand, in part to ensure that Rouhani becomes Iran’s first one-term president.

Faced with the advances that moderates have made, hardliners may have to rely even more on unelected power centers to exert authority in two primary ways—particularly if they fail to overhaul their political platform and to rework their alliances in order to perform better in elections. First, they may make concessions to moderates in exchange for gains elsewhere—in line with Rouhani’s call for a “domestic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” to resolve differences—and second, they may coercively veto change.19 They are likely to employ a mix of both approaches, making concessions when win-win scenarios are possible but rejecting change when they anticipate significant losses.

Coercive vetoing can be formal, such as when official power centers like the Guardian Council, the judiciary, and the security forces are employed. It can also be accomplished by informal measures, such as using militant violence while maintaining plausible deniability; this is what occurred in the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January 2016, an event that further damaged already strained Iranian-Saudi relations. In extreme cases, it can involve political killings, as when the reformist theoretician Saeed Hajjarian was the target of a failed assassination attempt following the 2000 parliamentary elections.

The Islamic Republic is in a period of flux and tension in which Rouhani and moderates will have to carefully consider where to boldly push for change—by trying to lift the restrictions on Khatami, for example—and where to tread carefully to avoid a backlash, for instance in negotiations with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to end the Syrian civil war. The latest election results enhance Rouhani’s and moderates’ leverage to push for change and will be crucial to the way in which tensions with hardliners are managed and unfold.

Farzan Sabet is a Nuclear Security Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and a doctoral candidate in international history at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He is also managing editor of IranPolitik, a website on Iranian politics. You can follow him on Twitter @IranWonk.

Notes

1 “Khaterat-e Hashemi-e Rafsanjani az Rehlat-e Imam va Entekhab-e Ayatollah Khamanei be Rahbari” [Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s memories of the passing of the imam and the selection of Ayatollah Khamenei to the leadership], Tarikh-e Irani, June 3, 2012.

2 “Spotlight on Political Currents: How Is Political Competition Organized in Iran?,” Majlis Monitor, February 2, 2016, https://majlismonitor.com/en/2016/02/spotlight-how-is-political-competition-organized-in-iran/.

3 “Spotlight on Political Currents: The Centrists,” Majlis Monitor, February 12, 2016, https://majlismonitor.com/en/2016/02/spotlight-on-political-currents-the-centrists/.

4 “Spotlight on Political Currents: The Reformists,” Majlis Monitor, February 12, 2016, https://majlismonitor.com/en/2016/02/spotlight-on-political-currents-the-reformists/.

5 “Spotlight on Political Currents: The Conservatives,” Majlis Monitor, February 23, 2016, https://majlismonitor.com/en/2016/02/spotlight-on-political-currents-the-conservatives/.

6 “Spotlight on Parliament: How to Become a Candidate,” Majlis Monitor, January 11, 2016, https://majlismonitor.com/en/2016/01/spotlight-on-parliament-how-to-become-a-candidate/.

7 “Getting Through the Filter: Election Candidate Qualifications Since 1980,” Majlis Monitor, March 21, 2016, https://majlismonitor.com/en/2016/03/getting-through-the-filter-election-candidate-qualifications-since-1980/.

8 “Why Have So Many Candidates Registered for Iran’s Upcoming 2016 Elections?,” Majlis Monitor, January 11, 2016, https://majlismonitor.com/en/2016/01/why-have-so-many-candidates-registered-for-irans-upcoming-2016-elections/; and Hossein Marashi, “Az 3 Hezar Eslahtalab 30 Nafar Tayid Shod/ Radd-e Salahiat 99 Darsad Eslahtalaban” [From 3000 reformists 30 people were qualified/disqualification of 99 percent of reformists]), ILNA News Agency, January 17, 2016.

9 Mohammad Khatami, “Entekhabat 94: Hameh ba Ham az List-e Omid Hemayat Konim” [2016 elections: we shall all support the Omid list], YouTube video, posted by “Khatami Media,” February 21, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psMgpk33A60.

10 The author obtained these results by comparing the electoral lists with final results. It should be noted that two of the new members of the parliament appear on both of the main electoral lists, and one seat in the Isfahan electoral district remains to be determined by midterm elections.

11 Fereshteh Ghazi, “Record-haye Tazeh-ye Majlis-e Iran: Kamtarin Rouhani, Bishtarin Zan” [New records in Iran’s parliament: the fewest clergymen, the most women], BBC Persian, May 1, 2016.

12 Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iran Bars Female MP for ‘Shaking Hands with Unrelated Man,’” Guardian, April 15, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/15/iran-bars-female-mp-for-shaking-hands-with-unrelated-man.

13 “House Arrest of Presidential Candidates, Long a Taboo Topic, Emerges as Public Issue Again in Iran,” International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, September 8, 2015, https://www.iranhumanrights.org/2015/09/house-arrests-rouhani/.

14 Farzan Sabet, “Ayatollah vs. President,” New America, February 18, 2016, https://www.newamerica.org/weekly/111/ayatollah-vs-president/.

15 “Analysis: 2016 Iranian Parliamentary & Assembly of Experts Election Results,” Majlis Monitor, March 3, 2016, https://majlismonitor.com/en/2016/03/analysis-2016-iranian-parliamentary-assembly-of-experts-election-results/.

16 Ali Khamenei, “Bayanat Dar Didar-e Aza-ye Majlis-e Khobregan-e Rahbari” [Speech in a meeting with members of the Assembly of Experts], Khamenei.ir, March 10, 2016.

17 “Mousavi Va Rahnavard Dar Hasr-e Khanegi Rai Dadand; Sandugh-e Sayyar Be Khaneh Karrubi Naraft” [Mousavi and Rahnavard have voted while under house arrest; mobile ballot box did not go to Karroubi’s house], BBC Persian, February 27, 2016.

18 “Vazir-e Ertebatat: Barkhi Nahadha Baray-e Filter Kardan-e Shabakeh-haye Ejtemaei va Ghate’-e Net Feshar Avardand Amma Ma Moghavemat Kardim” [Communication minister: some centers brought pressure to filter social networks and cut the Internet but we resisted], Khabar Online, February 26, 2016.

19 Hassan Rouhani, “Barjam-e Yek Tamam Shod; Zaman-e Ejraye Barnameh-ye Jame-e Eghdam-e Moshtark-e Melli Fara Resideh Ast” [The first JCPOA is complete; it is time for a national joint comprehensive plan of action], Official Website of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, February 3, 2016.