Iran's Moment of Truth

Don't Worry About the Nuclear Deal, Worry About the Elections

An Iranian holds up a picture of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, June 9, 2009. Damir Sagolj / Reuters

In late February 2016, Iran will see two important elections. One is for the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body. The other is for the Majlis, Iran’s parliament. As Iran prepares for the vote, the power struggle between the hardliners and the moderates and reformists is intensifying. This showdown, even more than the discussions about the Iran deal, will shape Iranian politics in the years and decades to come.

According to Articles 107 and 111 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution, the Assembly of Experts is in charge of the appointment (and dismissal) of the Supreme Leader. Its members are elected by popular vote. But over the years, hardliners within the government have used all sorts of maneuvers to essentially neutralize the body. It is now completely obedient to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and meets only twice a year. After each meeting, the Assembly issues a statement praising the “wise leadership” of Khamenei followed by tough rhetoric about Israel, the United States, and those who oppose the rule of the hardliners.

The election of the Majlis, meanwhile, is governed by Article 99 of the Iranian constitution, which stipulates that “the Guardian Council will monitor the elections for the Majlis, the President, the Assembly of Experts, and any national referendum that may be put to people’s vote.” But right from its inception, the Guardian Council’s monitoring became a point of contention between Iran’s various factions. The main point of dispute was whether the “monitor” clause should be interpreted as giving the council responsibility for vetting candidates in addition to overseeing the elections, a battle that only intensified during the rule of Khamenei.

Clerics attend Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in Tehran, March 6, 2012.
Clerics attend Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in Tehran, March 6, 2012. Raheb Homavandi / Reuters
Unsurprisingly, the Guardian Council, which is also tasked with interpreting the constitution, has determined that the clause gives it power to certify the qualifications of all the candidates for each election. The council, historically controlled by ultra-conservatives, has rejected many candidates that it considers critics. For example, in one election for the Majlis in 2004, the council rejected 2,500 candidates; in 2008, it found 3,500

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