Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves as he arrives to attend a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran's Azadi Square, February 2016.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves as he arrives to attend a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran's Azadi Square, February 2016. / Reuters

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.


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 Khomeini, the theocrats managed to purge the proponents of republicanism, who were mostly leftist secular revolutionaries.

Yet after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, the theocrats split into two groups: the pragmatists and radicals. The former, advocating stability and reconstruction after a decade of war with Iraq, prevailed and curtailed the latter’s revolutionary agenda, which included statist economic policies and an aggressive foreign policy. The pragmatists went on to amend Iran’s constitution by establishing a Review Council that abolished the post of prime minister, and bifurcated the political system into a popularly elected president and a unicameral parliament. The changes, ratified in a referendum in July 1989, created a variety of theocratic bodies to oversee the executive and legislature, principally to guard the system’s theocratic nature, although they can also intervene on secular matters. The Guardian Council, one of the most prominent of these bodies, vets candidates for elected office and evaluates legislation, ostensibly to ensure its conformity with the tenets of Islam and with Iran’s constitution. 

Iran’s political divisions got more complicated in the late 1990s, when friction between the office of the new Supreme Leader Khamenei and then President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani reached new heights. Tensions bubbled over in the 1997 presidential election, which pitted Rafsanjani’s choice, Mohammad Khatami, against theocrats that sought to concentrate power in the office of the supreme leader. Khatami won, but the split pushed Rafsanjani, an influential leader of the revolution, toward republicanism.

The electoral contests are another chapter in the struggle over the Islamic Republic’s soul at a pivotal moment in its history.

When Khatami, a pragmatic republican, was unable to weaken the grip of theocratic bodies such as the Guardian Council, popular frustration led to the rise of the radical republicans, who won parliamentary elections in 2000. Led by the Participation Front (Jebh-e Mosharekat) and the National Trust Party (Hezb-e Etemad Meli), they pushed for rapid reforms, including freeing political prisoners and bolstering freedoms of the press.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during a meeting of the Assembly of Experts, September 2015.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during a meeting of the Assembly of Experts, September 2015.

The pendulum swung back again in 2004 and 2005, when radical theocrats, led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Developers’ Coalition of Islamic Iran (Abadgaran-e Iran-e Islami), hardened by their clash with radical republicans, captured the parliament and the presidency. They marginalized radical republicans in the heavily contested 2009 presidential elections by jailing their most prominent politicians, activists, and journalists. But their rule saw the economy grind to a halt and the country teeter on the brink of a military confrontation during the nuclear crisis. That paved the way for the return of pragmatic republicans, led by Rouhani, in 2013.


Iran’s overlapping republican and theological features make it difficult to plot political groups along a conventional right–left spectrum. The standard economic axis—from socialist at one end to free market at the other—was relevant in the 1980s and early 1990s, but no longer is; most factions now espouse some version of economic liberalization. The reformist–conservative dichotomy, often used as shorthand to distinguish those who believe in moderately paced reform from those who champion slow change, is equally problematic. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, often labeled a staunch conservative, went considerably further than his predecessor, the “reformist” Khatami, in transforming executive institutions and reforming the economy, particularly by ending state subsidies and privatizing nearly 90 percent of state-owned corporations.

Even Iran’s own political vernacular can be confusing. Some factions that have been identified as “extremist,” such as the ultra-conservative Steadfast Front (Jebh-e Paydari), in fact oppose radical change. Groups that pursue radical reform are often called “moderate” because they espouse a relatively conciliatory foreign policy and fairly liberal social norms. The “moderate” label is also used for certain centrist politicians, such as Rafsanjani and Rouhani, whose foreign policies are as conciliatory as those of the reformists, but who are more conservative when it comes to social policies.

The best way to analyze Iran’s political groups is thus to use a two-pronged classification system. The first prong differentiates groups by their understanding of the sources of political legitimacy: theocrats seek to maintain the dominance of the Supreme Leader, and republicans advocate popularly elected institutions. The second pits pragmatists, who seek to preserve the status quo, against radicals, who seek either a return to the original principles of the revolution or possess strong revisionist inclinations. Taken together, these prongs yield four separate political groups.

Pragmatic theocrats believe in rule by divine will, advocate economic liberalization, espouse conservative Islamic social norms, and see an unavoidable clash of interests between Iran and the West. They are the old guard of the Islamic Republic, dominating the majority of Iran’s unelected institutions. Khamenei is in this group.

Radical theocrats also believe in divine providence, but they support populist, statist, and redistributive economic policies to promote social justice. They also adhere to restrictive Islamic mores and pursue a confrontational foreign policy based on an existential zero-sum battle with the West and on promoting regional hegemony. They ruled Iran under Ahmadinejad, from 2005 to 2013.

Pragmatic republicans, by contrast, emphasize Iran’s elected institutions and constitution over divine authority. They advocate a market economy with state-driven industrialization; support cultural freedoms within Islamic norms; and espouse regional interdependence, interaction with the West, and integration into the global economy. They include Rafsanjani and his supporters, Khatami and his allies, and Rouhani and the Moderation and Development Party he founded in 1999. They are, for the most part, advocates of the “China model,” in which economic liberalization takes precedence over political liberalization.

Finally, radical republicans believe most strongly in the people’s will, as expressed in elections. They contend that the supreme leader’s authority ought to be subject to the constitution. They promote a free-market economy, have liberal views on social issues, and endorse a cooperative regional policy and moderate foreign policy centered on normalizing relations with the West. For them, political development toward “religious democracy” takes precedence over economic growth. The leaders of this group were purged after the 2009 elections and their parties were shut down.


For many years, Iran has managed to accommodate both theocracy and republicanism. Theoretically, it is the supreme leader who maintains this balance.

Ayatollah Khomeini did it by mediating among Islamist factions. (Republican factions were largely repressed during his rule.) But Khamenei has a more difficult job. He has striven to maintain his grip on power, but can afford neither to eliminate republicanism—to which many of Iran’s founding fathers and technocrats adhere—nor sanction a drift in that direction. 

Iran’s policymaking process thus requires compromise between the different centers of power. Consider the nuclear agreement: Rouhani and the Iranian people, tired of sanctions, catalyzed the talks, but the agreement would not have been possible without the coalition Rouhani built with pragmatic theocrats. Nor would it have been successful without the Supreme Leader’s support.

The big question is what happens next. With elections looming, many hope—and many fear—that the Islamic Republic could be headed toward republicanism.

Even if this election marks another win for the theocrats, their long-term supremacy remains uncertain.

If the republicans capture a large share of Iran’s parliament, they would control two branches of government, posing a challenge to the pragmatic theocrats. No less worrying for the theocrats is the risk that radical republicans, dubbed “seditionists” by the political establishment for their backing of the 2009 uprising, might engineer their own comeback in the shadow of pragmatic republicans.

The Guardian Council has taken it upon itself to prevent such a scenario. Of the record 12,123 candidates for parliament (a 60 percent increase over the 2012 elections), the Council disqualified nearly 58 percent in the first round. It barred more than 95 percent of the radical republican candidates, as well as two dozen incumbent lawmakers and more than 60 veterans of the Iran–Iraq war, mostly belonging to the pragmatic republican camp.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) registers for February's election of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses the supreme leader, in Tehran December 2015.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) registers for February's election of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses the supreme leader, in Tehran December 2015.
Raheb Homavandi / Reuters

This prompted a public outcry. Rouhani and Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament, succeeded in reinstating 1,500 political aspirants, of mixed political affiliations, bringing the disqualification rate down to 49 percent. Yet the roster of approved candidates still lacks serious radical republican contenders or enough pragmatic republicans‫ to disturb the existing balance of power.

Yet the elections need not be a total defeat for republicans. Rouhani can still preside over a friendlier parliament if radical theocrats are weakened. And after polls close, Rouhani could curry favor with the cohort of independent, first-time lawmakers (35 percent in the 2012 elections) in the next parliament to bolster the republican bloc.

The republicans pose an even greater threat to the Assembly of Experts. If they managed to increase the size of their existing minority led by Rafsanjani, they would gain greater influence in the selection of Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor, which requires a two-thirds majority vote.

Given these fears, the Guardian Council has barred Hassan Khomeini, a popular grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder and a pragmatic republican, from competing in the assembly’s election. He was one of the 472 candidates—including major clerics and all 16 women candidates—whose credentials the Guardian Council rejected. The disqualification rate was 75 percent; as a result, in six out of Iran’s 31 provinces, there will be no competition for seats. 


Having developed finely tuned methods for engineering election results, Iran’s theocratic forces are bound to win the upcoming polls. The next parliament could be friendlier to President Rouhani, but will remain largely aligned with pragmatic theocrats. The Assembly of Experts is likewise likely to remain unchanged.

Yet even if this election marks another win for the theocrats, their long-term supremacy remains uncertain. In a letter to Rouhani, 300 prominent Iranian academics expressed their discontent over widespread graft, writing that non-competitive and unfair elections are not worth holding. Still, 110 years after Iran’s first parliamentary elections, republican leaders have exhorted people to vote, lest they waste an opportunity to weaken the radical theocrats. As Rouhani said in a conference in Tehran on February 7, voting “could bring gains, albeit limited, whereas our absence will definitely result in a loss.”

The motto of the 1979 revolution was “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic.” Nearly four decades later, Iran has achieved independence from foreign influence and continues to assert its Islamic credentials, but this has come at the price of its republican values. Yet if past is prologue, it is clear that proponents of republicanism can be suppressed temporarily but not eliminated entirely.

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