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 wanting. In both cases, the vast majority of those rejected were reformists.

The Guardian Council has 12 members: six of them must be clerics and are appointed by Khamenei; the other six must be legal scholars, who are proposed by the judiciary chief to the Majlis to receive parliamentary approval. The judiciary chief, of course, is also a Khamenei appointee. In effect, by controlling the makeup of the Guardian Council, which in turns approves the candidacy of a limited number of trusted candidates for the Assembly of Experts, Khamenei controls the constitutional body that is supposed to monitor and control him. The same goes for the Majlis.

It is due to this closed cycle that elected government bodies have become tools for Khamenei to do as he pleases. For example, by pressuring members of the assembly, Khamenei forced the body to sack his rival, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the chairmanship of the body. In subsequent elections to choose a new chair for the assembly, Khamenei’s office intervened again, and Rafsanjani lost the election to Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a reactionary cleric and ally of Khamenei.


Rafsanjani was once close to the conservatives and to Khamenei himself. In fact, it was Rafsanjani who, in 1989, played a decisive role in the elevation of Khamenei to the post of Supreme Leader by recalling a conversation that he supposedly had with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In that conversation, Khomeini allegedly expressed confidence in Khamenei’s qualifications. Rafsanjani must have thought that the move would make him one of Iran’s most powerful figures, with Khamenei beholden to him. But over the years, Khamenei pushed Rafsanjani to the sidelines. Thus, Rafsanjani has started to oppose many of Khamenei’s policies, and is now closer to the reformists. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also opposes many of Khamenei’s positions, particularly in the cultural arena, including freedom of the press, censorship of books, music, cinema, theater, and the role of women in the society.

Students attend a parliament session in Tehran, January 29, 2012.
Students attend a parliament session in Tehran, January 29, 2012.
Raheb Homavandi / Reuters
In the coming vote, Rafsanjani and Rouhani are determined to change, to the fullest extent possible, the composition of the Assembly of Experts. The conservatives are well aware of this, and have already linked such plans to pro-American and “seditionist” groups (sedition is the term that Khamenei used to describe the Green Movement). Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the powerful and conservative secretary-general of the Guardian Council, has repeatedly warned that the council will reject all pro-Rafsanjani/Rouhani candidates.

That hasn’t stopped Rafsanjani from encouraging reformist candidates, including Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to run in the Assembly of Experts elections. It would be difficult for the Guardian Council to question the credentials of a member of Khomeini’s family, particularly his grandson. Even so, the Guardian Council is likely to bite the bullet and declare that Khomeini is not mojtahed—an Islamic scholar that can issue a fatwa—and will reject his candidacy. But Rafsanjani believes that if a large number of people run, then at least some of them will be elected.

The same goes for the Majlis elections. The Guardian Council will probably drastically cull any roster that Rouhani and Rafsanjani put forward, but Rouhani has forcefully declared that neither of the two important political factions, the fundamentalists or reformists, can eliminate the other. He has pointed out that rejecting the candidates is illegal and that certifying the qualifications of the candidates is the government’s task, not the Guardian Council’s. He even went so far as to say that holding the elections is the government’s job, and that the Guardian Council must only monitor things to prevent any illegal activities. In all this, Rouhani’s positions are in accordance with the constitution.

Even so, after his remarks, Rouhani was met with severe criticism. The chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Ali Jafari, reacted angrily. “Such talk,” he said, “weakens the pillars of the revolution.” Meanwhile, Sadegh Larijani, the hardline judiciary chief warned that “the seditionists are trying to penetrate the state.”

So why does Rouhani think he can be so outspoken? According to Article 113 of Iran’s constitution, the president is the second highest official of the country after the Supreme Leader. He is the head of the government and is responsible for executing the constitution. And as such, has said that he considers rejecting candidates for elections as unconstitutional. For all his talk, however, Rouhani does not have the power to enforce his interpretations.

He might also be wrong about his ability to speak freely. Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei, chief deputy to the judiciary chief and its spokesman, responded to Rouhani’s remarks by declaring that what the president said was “his personal opinion” and that it would weaken and destroy the Guardian Council, which is responsible for interpreting the constitution. Implicitly threatening Rouhani, Ejehei said that “in the Imam’s [Khomeini’s] era, if someone spoke against the Guardian Council and its duties, he would be confronted very harshly.” More importantly, Khamenei himself directly responded to Rouhani on September 9, when he said in a speech that vetting the candidate and disqualifying them is not only the Guardian Council’s legal obligation, but also part of “protecting people’s rights.”

Hassan Rouhani speaks during the opening ceremony of the International Conference on Recent Developments in Iraq and the Prospects for Regional Security in Tehran, April 24, 2006.
Raheb Homavandi / Reuters

Harsh rhetoric is nothing new. In fact, these debates spring up close to every national election, particularly since Khatami was elected in a landslide in 1997. Since then, national elections have only further divided society—and this one will be no different. And so, over the past several months, conservatives have routinely expressed alarm over the polarization of the society (as if they weren’t themselves the main contributors to the problem). Conservatives are likely worried about a repeat of the 2009­–10 Green Movement, which, if they continue on their present course, they might spark.

For one, the hardliners have been attacking the Rouhani administration for ignoring Khamenei’s red lines in the nuclear negotiations and signing an agreement that they claim is against Iran’s national interests and security. The more radical hardliners even call the agreement “a second Turkmanchay,” a reference to the 1828 treaty between Iran and the Russian empire in which Iran ceded control of a large part of its territory in the Caucasus. But a large majority of Iranian people, the reformists, Rafsanjani, and Rouhani’s cabinet strongly support the nuclear deal. As hardliners speak out against it, they only marginalize themselves and polarize public opinion.

Second, hardliners have been outraged by European high officials’ trips to Tehran, particularly a recent one by British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond, to lay the groundwork for future trade between Europe and Iran. Khamenei and his supporters believe that, through the nuclear agreement, the West will try to return to Iran, build up its influence there, and then topple the Islamic Republic. According to news reports, Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the hardline commander of the Basij militia, chided Rouhani by saying that Iran “will not gain anything from such trips. The duty of all the people in this all-out war is preventing the return of Westerners to Iran.”

Hardliners accuse Rouhani of trying to transform Iran from being an exceptional anti-American force in the region to one that is part of the international community. In this way, the hardliners claim, Rouhani is going back on the revolutionary discourse. The most recent trip to Tehran, made on September 20–21 by Yukiya Amano, Director-General of the IAEA has intensified the hardliners’ attacks. Amano met with the members of the Majlis’ national security and foreign policy commission, and also visited the controversial Parchin military site. As hardliners complain about the deal and the increased traffic of European visitors, however, Rouhani, the reformists, and much of the public want improved relations with the West, particularly the United States.

Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani casts his ballot in a parliamentary election in Tehran, March 2, 2012. In the background is a poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic Republic.
Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani casts his ballot in a parliamentary election in Tehran, March 2, 2012.
The sanctions on Iran, the most crippling in history, took the country into a deep recession. Tehran is grappling with high unemployment, high inflation, the devaluation of the national currency against foreign benchmarks, and expanding poverty. At the same time, the price of oil has decreased dramatically, and Iran’s oil exports are less than half of its pre-sanctions sales. For several years, Iran has also been afflicted with a severe drought.

Conservatives speak about such problems constantly, and they fault the Rouhani administration for them. But the government and its supporters counter that the Ahmadinejad administration had nearly $800 billion income from oil exports, and not only wasted it but also spread and deepened corruption. Meanwhile, the public understands that, realistically, the only way out of these problems is the end of sanctions and re-introduction of trade with the West.

Third, hardliners’ constant refrains about “sedition”—the Green Movement—have contributed to a lot of ill-feeling. Many of Iran’s political groups have called for the release from house arrest of the Green Movement’s leaders, including former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and former Speaker of the Majlis Mehdi Karroubi. They will be demanding these figures’ release even louder as the elections approach. Some of the world’s most renowned intellectuals have also demanded the release of all political prisoners in Iran, and these appeals has become a heavy burden for Khamenei.

To be sure, the result is nearly a foregone conclusion, given that the conservatives will not allow the top tier (or even second tier) of reformist candidates to run.

An Iranian man holds up a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a demonstration to mark the 27th anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution in Tehran, February 11, 2006.
An Iranian man holds up a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, February 11, 2006.
Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters

The Khatami administration worked with the George W. Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq. It suspended Iran’s uranium enrichment program, and voluntarily implemented the Additional Protocol of the Safeguards Agreement. It proposed a “grand bargain” to the United States in May 2003, which Bush rejected, a policy that contributed to the rise of Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Compared with Khatami’s proposal, the current nuclear arrangement contains more significant concessions by the West to Iran, yet Iran’s hardliners still claim that Iran given a lot away and gained nothing in return. Such sentiments will be very much in play in the coming months.

So what can the world do? If Iran carries out all of its obligations under the nuclear agreement, the international sanctions on Iran will gradually ease starting in the spring of 2016. Perhaps ironically, the timing will benefit the hardliners and hurt the reformists, because the upcoming elections will be held before the end of sanctions have had an effect on Iran’s economy. In turn, the West might seriously consider speeding up the timetable.

The next five months will witness a fierce power struggle in Iran. Although the elections have always been limited to the political forces that the state accepts, votes generally lead to a more open political environment. There will be fierce competition, and maybe some unpredicted outcomes. At the very least, democratic groups in Iran must take advantage of the opportunity to expand their own networks. Little by little, those forces could find themselves with more power than they expected.

Whether we like it or not, the United States will have an instrumental role to play in Iran’s democratization process. Jettisoning the military option, even from the rhetoric of U.S. politicians, the removal of crippling sanctions that amount to nothing more than the collective punishment of the Iranian people, must give way to enhanced negotiations that go beyond the nuclear issue and extend to matters of critical interest to both sides, including the fight against the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and other militant groups. Such talks will benefit global peace and justice, and are bound to work in favor of the democratization process and its advocates in Iran.

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  • AKBAR GANJI is an Iranian journalist and dissident. He was imprisoned in Tehran from 2000 to 2006, and his writings are currently banned in Iran. This article was translated from the Farsi by Ali N. Babaei.
  • More By Akbar Ganji