Iran's general election could determine choice of next Supreme Leader

Iran's general election could determine choice of next Supreme Leader
As the conservative Ayatollah Khamenei approaches 77, his health is becoming an increasing source of concern.
By Carmen Valache in Istanbul February 23, 2016

A brief, week-long electoral campaign is in full swing in Iran, where 6,300 candidates will run for 290 seats in parliament and another 165 compete for 88 seats in the Assembly of Experts on February 26. But while the upcoming election will influence the speed at which domestic economic reforms take place, it is unlikely to change the course of Iran's foreign policy, observers say.

After the European Union lifted sanctions on Iran in January, and foreign companies started a scramble to win contracts, interest in the election has soared. But simplistic explanations that divide candidates between conservatives and reformists fail to convey the complexities of political allegiances in Iran, for the structure of Iran's political groupings is much more transient and intricate than what Western voters are used to, Professor Nader Entessar of the University of South Alabama tells bne Intellinews.

While the election itself it expected to be free of fraud  – in contrast to the 2009 presidential election at which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second term - the registration procedures for candidates significantly hamper voters' freedom of choice at the polls.

Entessar says registration applications are overseen by executive councils of the Ministry of Interior at the local level, before they are passed on to a 12-person body called the Guardian Council.

"The executive councils approved some 95% of the 12,123 Majlis candidates this year," Entessar says. However, the Guardian Council vetoed half of the candidates, leaving only 6,300 in the race for parliament. It banned all but 30 of the candidates that openly identify themselves as "reformists" from running, and only published the official candidate lists one week before the election, leaving little time for underdogs to attract voters' attention.

"The Guardian Council has always selected the candidates it believes will not challenge the status quo," Entessar says, adding that the reformists that the Guardian Council allowed to run are no-names that voters will have a hard time identifying on the ballot sheets. The opaque council, which comprises six clerics appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, and six jurists voted in by the parliament, has no obligation to publicly disclose the reasons why it vetoes certain candidates, making it an unofficial filter for the incumbent parliament to ensure its continuity after the election.

The Assembly of Experts

The 88-seat assembly is a fairly inactive body, with its main responsibility that of appointing the Supreme Leader for life, and in extreme circumstances of removing him from office. The Supreme Leader is the most powerful man in Iran, who makes final decisions on key issues, particularly over foreign and security policy and the appointment of top officials.

The body is elected for eight-year terms, meets only twice a year and has so far appointed one Supreme Leader - Ayatollah Khamenei himself – in its 36-year history.

However, as the conservative Ayatollah Khamenei approaches 77, his health is becoming an increasing source of concern – he reportedly underwent a successful prostate cancer surgery in September 2014. Therefore the Assembly of Experts to be elected this week is expected to select the next Supreme Leader, giving this assembly significantly more sway over political decision-making in Iran compared to its predecessors.

The old assembly already began searching for a candidate in 2015, according to former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who told ILNA news agency in December that "they [the assembly] have appointed a group to list the qualified people that will be put to a vote when an incident [e.g. Ayatollah Khamenei's death] happens". While rumours have it that Rafsanjani himself might be vying for the office, Entessar believes that he is too old at 82 – even older than Ayatollah Khamenei – to stand a chance.

"Ayatollah Khamenei has given no indication of his preferred successor so far," he said, adding that the pragmatic conservative Rafsanjani, one of the most experienced politicians in Iran, could play a role in deciding who the next supreme leader will be.

While the job description for the Assembly of Experts might not be particularly overwhelming, the qualifications needed to be elected are, for contenders need to take an exam in Islamic law and undergo a rigorous process to prove their Shari'a legislative credentials to the Guardian Council.

That might explain perhaps why only 165 of the 810 potential candidates were allowed to run. All of the 16 women that enlisted, as well as Ayatollah Khamenei's own grandson, junior cleric Hassan Khomeini, were barred from running. "His name might carry certain weight, but only the most senior clerics are elected to the Assembly of Experts," Entessar explains. 

The Majlis

Unlike the Assembly of Experts, the Majlis is much more involved in Iran's domestic policies, in particular drafting legislation. Therefore the composition of the future parliament will dictate decisions on important reforms and policies, such as the level of foreign investment allowed in Iran, tackling the stubbornly high inflation that Tehran has grappled with since 2012, how to recover the money owed to the country, and social policies. 

However, Entessar warns, "when it comes to foreign policy, the Majlis is more of a debating body rather than a decision-making one. Case in point, the parliament had little influence over the decision to end Iran's nuclear programme, despite dedicating hours of debate to the issue. It is the Supreme Leader who makes important foreign policy decisions."

Friday's election cannot undo the progress made towards opening up Iran to foreign investment, Entessar believes, but it will dictate to what extent European and Asian companies can invest in Iran. "The United States will not be part of Iran's development for the foreseeable future," the academic believes, because of continued American sanctions against Tehran for its support of terrorism and human rights violations, and because of Tehran's antipathy in return towards the US.

A candidate in the election himself, the centrist President Hassan Rouhani, who has executive powers, is currently under pressure both from a disenchanted electorate, which has felt the brunt of sanctions and is becoming impatient with the pace of economic growth, and from hardliners in the parliament, who are accusing him and the government of "paving the way for Western businesses to loot the country's natural and financial services", as a Financial Times editorial put it. 

Given the Guardian Council's pre-selection of candidates, most observers are pessimistic about the reformists' chances in the election. However, Entessar believes that there is still room for hope.

"The conservatives are not a monolithic group themselves; some are in favour of free market reforms and foreign investment, while others oppose them. Such schisms are apparent even among the Ayatollah's supporters," he notes. Some reformists might not openly identify themselves as such, while some conservatives could support Rouhani's economic policies.

The absence of traditional political parties explains why Iranian MPs can have such nuanced agendas and allegiances, which have allowed centrist Rouhani, for instance, to become close to Ali Larijani, the conservative speaker of parliament.

"Political parties in the traditional sense do not exist in Iran. They are groupings rather than parties. Majlis candidates register as individuals in Iran, and are then backed by one or various groupings - such as Kargozaran or the teachers of different theological seminaries, which helps them win more votes. However, once they reach the Majlis, the MPs are free to associate themselves with any of the informal groupings in it," he explains.

Far away from the political infighting in Tehran in the regions, political allegiances matter even less, Entessar contends. " In the small towns, people vote for candidates that have done something for their municipality or region irrespective of their politics."

So while the Guardian Council's vetoing of overt reformists does not bode well for the coming election, there may still be hope that President Rouhani's economic reforms will garner enough support in the Majlis. Entessar does not expect the election itself to make much of a difference "except if Rouhani's opponents occupy the majority of the seats”, he says.