Iranian Elections: The "Reformers" Didn't Win

Why the theocratic regime is as threatening as ever.

Iran held an election last week to fill seats in its clerical body known as the Assembly of Experts, which would select Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor as Supreme Leader, as well as seats in Iran’s parliament.  Focusing on victories over hardliners in the capital city of Tehran, the results are being hailed in the Iranian “reformist” circles as “Tehran’s Spring.“  So-called “reformists and moderates,” who support President Hassan Rouhani and strategized together to defeat the hardliners, are crowing. And as the BBC reported, President Rouhani has sought to portray the results as a mandate to continue his policies of trying to reduce Iran’s international isolation. “It’s time to open a new chapter in Iran’s economic development based on domestic abilities and international opportunities,” he said last Saturday.

The hardliners did not waste any time attacking the “reformists” for, as one hardline paper put it, telling a “big lie.” The hardline head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, charged that moderates and reformists had collaborated with “foreigners” to push out some of his fellow hardliners from the Assembly of Experts.  

Hardliners also pointed to their own electoral successes outside of Teheran itself to demonstrate that the country at large still supported them.  Although not yet finally tallied as of the writing of this article, the preliminary results outside of Tehran are showing that the hardliners may well have a majority in the Assembly of Experts.

As for the parliament, there may be a more “moderate” tilt as a result of the apparent strategy of “moderates” and “reformists” to join forces in order to take seats away from the more doctrinaire hardliners. However, this will not move the parliament in any real reformist direction. The “moderates” themselves are fairly conservative and have shown little interest of their own in any human rights driven agenda. Neither President Rouhani nor the centrist “moderates’ supporting him, who will be taking seats in the Assembly of Experts and the parliament, are likely to endanger their own positions by advocating a too far-reaching “reformist” program. To the contrary, executions have actually spiked during the “moderate” Rouhani presidency. The situation for religious minority groups – including Baha’is, Christians, and Sufi Muslims – remains “dire,” according to Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. More “moderates” in Rouhani’s image in parliament or the Assembly of Experts will not change the Iranian theocratic regime’s iron rule over its people.

In any event, the election outcome was effectively rigged in advance to preserve the hardliners’ power bases even if they lost some seats. Iran’s conservative-dominated Guardian Council, half of whose members are theologians appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei himself, essentially pre-determined the election conclusion by pre-selecting who was eligible to run in the first place. Almost half of the potential candidates who were initially nominated to run were cut by the Guardian Council. Less than 10% of those allowed to run for the parliament were women. Only males were permitted to run for the Assembly of Experts.

Thus, in reality, the election represented little more than a demonstration of high voter turnout to supposedly prove wide public support for the current theocratic system and to provide the illusion of “democracy.”

“I feel responsible to appreciate this public response to the Islamic System’s call,” tweeted Ayatollah Khamenei, who is the real power in Iran, along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that enforces the regime’s rule. “Praise to Wise and Almighty God who made the informed, determined nation of Iran victorious in another great examination,” the Supreme Leader wrote in another tweet.

Needless to say, Iranian exiles do not share the Supreme Leader’s enthusiasm. In tweets, they claimed that the high number of voters heralded in the government press was significantly inflated. They also claimed that some of those who voted did so in order to avoid expulsion from their schools or jobs. Many Iranian youth reportedly boycotted the election. 

An exiled resistance leader Maryam Rajavi called the elections a “sham.” She said: “The so-called election did not mean to elect the people’s representatives, but it was a competition between the incumbent and former officials in charge of torture and executions.”

In any event, irrespective of the election results, Ayatollah Khamenei and his hardline allies, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, will continue to run Iran as they see fit. 

Ayatollah Khamenei, who of course was not popularly elected, has the final say on all major foreign and domestic policy decisions. The nuclear deal would not have happened, for example, without his consent, which the Supreme Leader granted only after receiving many concessions from the Obama administration and its negotiating partners. 

As already mentioned, the Guardian Council, which is also not popularly elected, determines who is eligible to run for the parliament and Assembly of Experts. It also has veto power over parliamentary legislation that it determines to be inconsistent with sharia law. 

The IRGC is Iran’s most powerful security and military organization, more than 150,000 strong.  Through its support of jihadist terrorist proxies, the IRGC is also an exporter of Iran’s Islamic revolution. At home, think of the IRGC, and its subsidiary Basij militia, as Ayatollah Khamenei’s SS troops, as demonstrated by their role in the brutal suppression of the mass protests in 2009. The IRGC also has vast economic power, dominating key sectors such as energy, construction, telecommunications, auto making, banking and finance. Removal of the economic sanctions, unfreezing of assets, and opening of trade and investment by Western governments and companies will only serve to fill the coffers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. More money will be flowing into those coffers to finance the IRCG’s military ventures abroad and crackdowns on dissent at home. 

Much will probably be written in the mainstream Western press about rising reformist power as a result of the election. The defeat of some prominent hardline figures, such as Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and Mohammad Yazdi, who lost their seats in the Assembly of Experts, and Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a hardliner close to Khamenei who lost his seat in parliament, will be pointed to as evidence of the tide of change supposedly sweeping Iran. However, nothing is really changing at all. Iran’s ruling clique will retain the theocratic Islamic regime it has been since 1979, exporting jihad, repressing its own people, threatening to eliminate Israel from the map and seeking nuclear weapons that will endanger international peace and security.