The stakes could not be higher for Iran’s February 26 elections for the parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with electing and removing the country’s Supreme Leader. With Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei now 77, it is likely that the next assembly will choose his successor, possibly reshaping the course of the Islamic Republic.
The polls follow the July 2015 nuclear agreement, a significant achievement for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected, in part, to resolve Iran’s protracted standoff with the West. His foreign policy victory could strengthen his pragmatist allies, allowing them to gain an upper hand in the legislature. If the opposite happens, Rouhani risks lame-duck status, jeopardizing his likelihood of re-election in 2017.
The vote thus comes during a turbulent time. The end of sanctions has opened the country’s doors to the outside world. Although that opening could resuscitate Iran’s ailing economy, some Iranian leaders fear that it will make the country vulnerable to outside influence and political liberalization. The end of sanctions also threatens quasi state-owned companies that flourished in Iran’s closed economy. Many of these companies are now trying either to prevent the country from rejoining global markets or ensure that they remain the economy’s principal beneficiary. In other words, in addition to deciding Iran’s political future, the elections will also determine its economic fate, since structural economic reform and major contracts—especially in the lucrative fields of oil and natural gas—will require the legislature’s consent.
But above all, the electoral contests are another chapter in the struggle over the Islamic Republic’s soul at a pivotal moment in its history.
ISLAMIC OR REPUBLIC?
At the heart of the Islamic Republic lies an incongruous blend of popular sovereignty and religious authority. Since 1979, a chasm has divided Iran’s theocrats from its republicans, who believe that government legitimacy stems not from divine providence but popular will. Under the auspices of the revolution’s charismatic religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah