Iran’s February elections

An important article discusses the upcoming elections in Iran for the future of the country.

It begins “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 neutralise 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 piece goes on to note “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. 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”.

Importantly the author notes how the deck has been stacked, “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”.

The article adds that Rafsanjani was unable to control Khamenei and so “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”.

Perhaps in a sweeping statement the author writes that “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”.

In the same vein he notes “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”.

Pointedly the author writes “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”.

He ends the piece “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”.

He concludes “Whether we like it or not, the United States will have an instrumental role to play in Iran’s democratisation 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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