Iran received a political shock in mid-January 2016, after early reports suggested that Iran’s hardline election watchdog had carried out a mass disqualification of reformist and moderate candidates for the parliamentary elections of 26 February.
The news broke as Iranians were to begin the first day in many years with no international sanctions imposed on them; this was a result of the implementation of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers that was expected by many to boost moderates in Iran’s intense power struggle.
“As we prepared to celebrate the JCPOA (Iran deal), they put aside 60 per cent of [all] candidates,” said moderate ex-president Rafsanjani, one of the founding leaders of 1979 revolution and a key ally of President Rouhani.
The powerful Guardian Council consists of six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists chosen by the lawmakers, and it functions both as the upper house of parliament, with veto power, and as an election watchdog in charge of vetting candidates, to make sure that people deemed insufficiently loyal to the system and the leadership are barred from running in the election.
A record 12,000 people, including a record 1,400 women, had registered to run in the parliamentary elections, and another 800, mostly senior clerics, had registered to run for the Assembly of Experts, which is in charge of supervising the leadership and choosing the next leader.
Assembly of Experts election
Some of Iran’s most prominent moderate clerics, including Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Khomeini, the 43-year-old grandson of the former supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, put their names forward in the Assembly of Experts election, which is to be held coincidently with the parliamentary election on 26 February.
The Guardian Council, five members of which are candidates for the assembly, refused to accept the religious competence of Hassan Khomeini, the Iranian press agency, ILNA ,reported on 26 January. Moderate clerics, such as Ayatollah Rafsanjani, Hassan Rouhani, and Nasrollah Shah-Abadi, and hardliner Mesbah Yazdi were certified, while moderates Mousavi Bojnourdi, Mahmoud Amjad, Majid Ansari, and hardliners Mehdi Taeb and Morteza Agha Tehrani were disqualified, the report said. Five women also registered for that election in a bid to break the taboo on the presence of women in the clerical body, but none was endorsed by the Council.
Only clerics and people with clerical credentials and competence can be elected to the 88-seat Assembly of Experts, which chooses the supreme leader and can, on paper if not in practice, supervise the leader.
Siamak Rah-Peyk, a spokesman for the Central Elections Supervising Committee, the vetting body of the Guardian Council, said 166 candidates had been approved for the Assembly election, 111 were not authorized, 207 were disqualified, and 58 had withdrawn.
More than 90 per cent (10,954) of all (12,123) parliamentary candidates had earlier had their qualifications approved by the local “executive panels,” whose members are mostly civil servants and well-known locals of each constituency picked by the Ministry of the Interior and are in charge of verifying the background, criminal records, and educational certifications of the candidates.
In the next step, the second vetting body known as the “supervisory panels,” which operate in coordination with the Guardian Council, refused to endorse nearly 60 per cent of all candidates, mostly on the grounds they were insufficiently loyal to the establishment and Islam. The candidates can appeal the decision of the panels.
“Out of the 12,000 registered candidates, 26 per cent were rejected and 28 per cent were not endorsed,” said Siamak Rah-Peyk, a jurist member of the Council. There is a slight difference between rejection and non-endorsement, as non-endorsed candidates are perceived to have a greater chance of securing endorsement in subsequent phases of the vetting.
“We saw the most unprecedented disqualifications since the 1979 revolution,” said Hossein Marashi, who is a senior member of the Reformists’ Supreme Policy-Making Council, which has brought together leaders of all moderate and reformist political parties in a coalition to oppose conservative candidates. “Only 30 reformist candidates were endorsed out of 3,000.”
Iran’s parliament has 290 seats and is currently dominated by conservative and hardline factions.
President Rouhani’s reformist supporters, who had wanted to win a majority of the seats to push through their agenda of economic and political reforms after the settlement of the nuclear dispute and the opening to the West, were shocked by the massive disqualifications.
“I didn’t expect so many to be disqualified. The Leader said, Vote even if you don’t believe in the system. There should be someone people can vote for,” said Tehran governor Hossein Hashemi, who was appointed by the Rouhani government, in reference to Ayatollah Khamenei’s earlier broad appeal to all citizens, including his opponents, to participate in the elections.
“This doesn’t mean opponents of the establishment should enter parliament,” clarified Khamenei, who has the final say on all major state matters. “No system in the world allows those opposed to its foundations to enter major decision-making chambers.”
“If only one faction is to compete in the election, why to hold election?!,” reacted Rouhani in an address to the governors on 21 January. “I have told the interior and intelligence ministers to engage with the Guardian Council and the first vice president to negotiate with them.” Rouhani added that no official is legitimately elected without gaining the people’s direct or indirect vote.
The resignation of the Guardian Council spokesman a night before the announcement of the disqualifications signalled that there were outstanding differences among its members.
Iranian reformists first swept into power in the late 1990s; Mohammad Khatami was sworn into office in August 1997, and reformist parties won a majority of parliamentary seats in the 2000 elections. They hold a more tolerant interpretation of Islam than do conservatives and advocate some liberal, pro-human-rights, and democratic values.
In 2009, the two reformist presidential candidates, Mousavi and Karoubi, contested the results of the election that ensured won President Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust-denier known for his tough anti-Western rhetoric, a second term in office. Millions of reformist supporters protested on the streets of Tehran following the disputed elections over fraud and vote-rigging allegations, in what conservatives call a seditious Western plot to overthrow the system. Mousavi and Karroubi are still being held under house arrest.
“Seditionists who chanted against the supreme leader and the oppressed people of Lebanon and now seek to reestablish ties with the US intend to win the parliament and the assembly,” warned Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the 88-year-old chairman of the Guardian Council on 4 January 2016.
Jannati added that people he called “sedition leaders” are now holding important positions in the (Rouhani) government and are considering infiltrating the parliament and that the record number of candidates proved his assertion.
Reformists will suffer a shortage of moderate candidates and a defeat of their plans to set a 30 per cent quota for women on the party lists, unless the Guardian Council reconsiders the qualifications. Of 50 female candidates in Shiraz and 20 in Urmia who had been certified by executive panels, only four were endorsed by the monitoring panels, and in many other constituencies, such as Sanandaj, almost none was equalified.