In first vote since nuclear deal, future of the Iran’s Islamic revolution is at stake

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Frud Bezhan, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Iran could chart its course for the next decade and beyond when hard-liners and moderates clash on February 26 in elections for parliament and the powerful body that will choose the country’s next supreme leader.

Much could be riding on these elections — from potentially picking Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s successor, to lining up allies for pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani reelection bid, to slamming the door on a comeback bid by the country’s marginalized reformists.

Due to a high turnout, election hours have been extended in Iran.
Due to a high turnout, election hours have been extended in Iran.

Not since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 has the Assembly of Experts election, usually a dull affair, attracted such huge attention.

Iran’s theocratic system vests the Assembly of Experts with the power to pick and dismiss the supreme leader, who has the last word on religious and political affairs.

Khamenei is 76, and unconfirmed rumors have swirled in recent years about his health. Since its members are elected every eight years, the new 88-member assembly could play the dominant role in choosing his successor.

Moreover, the next supreme leader is likely to be picked from the ranks of the assembly, all of whose members must be Islamic theologians.

“This is why the supreme leader and his allies want to make certain that they have someone in place who is amenable to their point of view,” says Scott Lucas, an Iran specialist at Birmingham University in Britain and editor of the EA World View website.

Lucas notes that Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of Islamic revolutionary and original Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has been disqualified by the Guardians Council, the clerical vetting body responsible for overseeing Iran’s elections. The 43-year-old Khomeini is thought to be sympathetic toward reformists and backed Rouhani in the 2013 presidential election, and his potential candidacy and revolutionary pedigree have attracted considerable attention.

Pragmatist former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani shone a light on the Assembly of Experts vote in December when he suggested that the body might be open to choosing “a council of leaders if needed” instead of a single supreme leader who rules for life.

Rouhani and Rafsanjani are both members of the assembly — Rafsanjani presided over the Assembly of Experts in 2007-11, in fact — and are up for reelection.

Under Iran’s constitution, a transitional “leadership council” is permitted until a supreme leader is selected by the assembly. But Rafsanjani appeared to be calling for a permanent council, a notion that is fiercely rejected by hard-liners.

Reformists Looking For Comeback

Reformists boycotted the last parliamentary elections in 2012, prompted by the harsh government crackdown on the opposition Green Movement after the disputed presidential election in 2009. The current 290-seat parliament is dominated by conservatives and hard-liners.

This year, reformists have united with moderates within a bloc called the Alliance Of Reformists And Government Supporters in hopes of more effectively challenging their rivals.

“What we’re seeing is probably the most significant attempt [to win seats] since the repression of the reformists since the early years of the 21st century,” says Lucas, who adds that many reformists regret their previous decisions to boycott.

“Now, the idea is that ‘we’re certainly not going to get all the reformists we want in and the moderates we want in, but if we can get this bloc in we will have more influence certainly more than we have since 2012 and we’ll be able to push back the hard-liners.'”

A reformist ex-president, Mohammad Khatami, even reemerged for a rare public appearance in the weeks before this month’s elections to try and get opposition voters out in large numbers. (Khatami has been subject to a domestic media ban since his support for the opposition in the wake of the disputed 2009 elections.)

In a YouTube video put out by a group called Khatami Media, the 72-year-old theologian and former two-term president cited Rouhani’s election win in 2013 and urged voters to help the reformists take a “second step.”

Khatami and fellow ex-President Rafsanjani also encouraged Iranians to select candidates backed by reformists in the Assembly of Experts vote.

However, Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), says that, by disqualifying the vast majority of reformist candidates, the Guardians Council vetting candidates for all of Iran’s elections might have essentially precluded a reformist comeback.

“But despite their own exclusion, reformists are encouraging the electorate to turn out at the polls, lest they waste the opportunity to elect moderates and sideline hard-liners,” Vaez says.

Rouhani’s Future

President Rouhani has a lot riding on the elections, which many observers see as a test of his popularity following the landmark nuclear deal reached with world powers last year.

A more reform-minded parliament could boost the prospects for Rouhani’s expected reelection bid in 2017, says Vaez.

“A friendlier parliament in the aftermath of the nuclear deal could allow Rouhani and his allies to advance their other objectives,” he says, referring to Rouhani’s stated desire to loosen restrictions on society and the press. “Should the opposite occur and an uncooperative parliament emerge, Rouhani risks lame-duck status, jeopardizing his odds of reelection in 2017.”

Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of the London-based political-risk-analysis group Cornerstone Global Associates, says Rouhani would also likely get a freer hand in pursuing more engagement with the West.

“If the results are overwhelmingly in favor of hard-liners, the relations with the West will suffer; but that is unlikely to happen,” Nuseibeh says.