Iranian elections: Another milestone in reformist advance

By Farhang Jahanpour

Since the latest Iranian elections held on 26th February 2016 for the 290-seat parliament (Majles) and the 88-member Assembly of Experts there have been many negative comments about the election results from the usual suspects.

Some people who are fundamentally hostile to Iran, criticize everything that Iran does, regardless of outcome. When the leading Iranian reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami won a landslide election in 1997 and initiated a series of important reforms at home and advocated a dialog of civilizations and even made a remarkable offer to the United States to reach a grand bargain over all the issues of contention, some pro-Israeli groups dismissed him, saying that he had no power.

However, when President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad made a number of outrageous comments, not only were his statements taken out of context and exaggerated, it was said that he posed an existential threat to Israel and the West.

Some people are at least honest about their real motives. During the controversial election in 2009 when Ahmadinezhad was declared the winner over the reformist candidate Mir-Hoseyn Moussavi, some American neoconservatives and Israeli commentators openly said that they preferred Ahmadinezhad because they could demonize him more easily.

“Just because Moussavi is called a moderate or a reformist doesn’t mean he’s a nice guy. After all he was approved by the Islamic leadership,” said Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin Sadat Center at Bar Ilan University. “If we have Ahmadinejad, we know where we stand. If we have Moussavi we have a serpent with a nice image.” The then Mossad Chief, Meir Dagan, told a panel of Israeli lawmakers: “If the reformist candidate Moussavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem, because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat.”

Recently, the staunchly anti-Iranian lobby, The Israel Project (TIP), produced a promotional video showing the leader of the terrorist group, the Mojahedin-e Khalq, denouncing the latest Iranian elections. This is despite the fact that before some right-wing pro-Israeli groups had decided to promote this terrorist group as a popular opposition group, in 2011 TIP director Josh Block had described the group as a terrorist organization. (1) Nevertheless, now his organization calls upon the same group to denounce the Iranian elections.

However, despite all this negative propaganda, the results of the latest Iranian elections exceeded all expectations. The elections set another milestone in the desire of the Iranian people for change and reform following the 2013 presidential election that resulted in the victory of the centrist candidate Hassan Rouhani.

Ever since the victory of the Islamic revolution, the government has held flawed, but competitive and relatively free and fair elections. In order to appreciate the significance of the election results, we should look at some of the obstacles that had been placed on the path of the reformists and moderates.

The right-wing Guardian Council, formed by six clerics appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and six appointed by the head of the judiciary, who is himself appointed by Khamenei, has the job of vetting all the candidates who run for high office in Iran. In the absence of organized political parties, anybody can declare himself or herself a candidate in presidential or parliamentary elections, and normally many unqualified people do so.

Therefore, there is a need for a vetting organization, but the criticism against the Guardian Council is that it does not act in a fair and impartial manner.

During the recent elections, the Guardian Council disqualified the vast majority of reformist candidates, thus preventing them from running, while the majority of the so-called “Principlists”, or right-wing extremists, had been allowed to contest the elections. As a result, many people felt that the reformists and moderates would either boycott the elections or that they would massively lose out to the conservatives and the extremists.

However, instead of reacting violently and resorting to demonstrations and protests as they had done in 2009, the reformists and the moderates joined forces and selected some of the lesser-known candidates that had not been disqualified and called on their supporters to vote for them.

Following the 2009 presidential election, when the Guardian Council declared the incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad the winner, there were massive demonstrations in Tehran and all major Iranian cities. An estimated half a million people demonstrated in Tehran against the election “theft”, carrying signs with the message “Where is my vote?”

Those were the biggest demonstrations since the start of the Islamic revolution in 1978-79, and they shook the clerical regime to its core. A few dozen demonstrators were killed and hundreds arrested and detained.

Ebrahim Yazdi, one of the original aides to the leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, who served as the first deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs under the clerical rule, and who was the leader of the banned Freedom Movement, warned that the attacks on the demonstrators had opened a “Pandora’s box” which would result in a deep crisis within the regime.

“The result of such a crisis now is that the rift among the personalities of the revolution is getting deeper,” he said. “It is also between people and their government, a rift between the state and the nation. It is the biggest crisis since the revolution.”

The reformist candidate Mir Hoseyn Moussavi, the leader of the Green Movement, and his wife the academic Zahra Rahnavard, and the other reformist candidate Mehdi Karrubi are still under house arrest.

Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani who had supported the reformist candidates was forced to give up his chairmanship of the powerful Assembly of Experts in 2011 and was replaced by Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a former head of the judiciary, the head of the Association of the Professors of Qum Religious Seminary and secretary of the Supreme Council of Religious Seminaries in the whole country.

Ayatollah Yazdi who headed the list of the right-wing candidates for the Assembly of Experts has often been also spoken of as a possible future Supreme Leader, despite his great age.

Another influential hard-line cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who was also a member of the Assembly of Experts and the director of Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qom, supported Ahmadinezhad in 2009 and declared his election a miracle and a gift from the Hidden Imam. He warned opposition groups against undermining the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, stating, “When the president is endorsed by the leader, obeying him is similar to obedience to God.”

Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi is regarded as the most radical cleric in Iran who is strongly opposed to Western culture and to democratic elections. He calls for the establishment of an “Islamic Government”, instead of an “Islamic Republic”, as according to him a republic is not compatible with Islam. He believes that the people’s vote is only a “decoration”, as the legitimacy of the system depends on Islamic Shari’a, not on the laws passed by the parliament.

He has argued that the Supreme Leader, as the “absolute guardian of the revolution”, does not require public endorsement as he receives his authority from God. Mesbah-Yazdi too has been referred to as a possible future Supreme Leader.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the powerful chairman of the Guardian Council, who disqualified the vast majority of the reformist candidates, is another right-wing cleric who also supported Ahmadinezhad in the 2009 election, and declared him the winner even before the votes had been properly counted.

The Guardian Council under his leadership has always acted as a great barrier to free and fair elections, and has disproportionately endorsed the qualifications of right-wing candidates while disqualifying many reformers.

In the recent elections, the moderates and the reformists regarded these three clerics as the supreme enemies of democratic reforms and the biggest barriers to change. While the reformists were prevented from equal access to public media, they made great use of social networks, as they had done during the 2009 election, and they called on their supporters not to vote for those three hard-line clerics for the Assembly of Experts.

It is remarkable that out of 16 seats for the Assembly of Experts from Tehran, the first two prominent clerics failed to be elected to the Assembly, while Ayatollah Jannati came last on the list. In any case, as an 89-year-old man, Ayatollah Jannati will not be able to serve for too many years as a diehard opponent of the reformists.

This is unprecedented and marks a major change in the fortunes of the hard-liners.

After the election, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed foreigners for instructing the people not to vote for those individuals, and proclaimed: “The exclusion of these experts like Ayatollah Yazdi and Mesbah is a huge loss to our system”.

In an interview with the reformist newspaper, Arman-e Emruz, Morteza Haji who served as minister of education in President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government said that blaming foreigners for the decision of Iranian voters was “an insult to the intelligence and the decisions of the Iranian people. Fortunately, the Iranian people will pay no attention to the remarks of such individuals, and they have always shown that at critical times they have taken correct and logical decisions.”

In the Majles election, there were 30 seats from Tehran. Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, a former parliamentary speaker (2004-2008) who is also very close to Ayatollah Khamenei (his daughter is married to Khamenei’s son) headed the list of the candidates of the so-called Principlists. The Principlists were hoping that he would also serve as parliamentary speaker in the next session of the Majles.

While the 30 candidates included on the list of the moderates and reformist coalition in Tehran swept all the seats in the capital, Haddad-Adel failed to be elected to the Majles, let alone be appointed as the speaker in the next Majles.

So, despite the massive disqualifications and many obstacles placed on the path of the moderates and the reformists, they have swept to power in both the Assembly of Experts and in the Majlis elections. In the Assembly of Experts election, Ayatollah Hashemi-Rafsanjani who had been unseated as the Assembly Chairman received the highest number of votes in Tehran, followed by the moderate cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani and President Hasan Rouhani.

The candidates chosen by the reformists and the moderates did not receive an absolute majority in the Majles, but they have broken the monopoly of the hardliners. Out of those elected in the first round, 83 belong to the reformist coalition, and there are 55 independents and 10 from People’s Voice Coalition, as opposed to 64 candidates from the so-called Principlist Coalition.

Therefore, President Rouhani will have a much more cooperative parliament and he will be able to pay more attention to domestic issues and work for greater freedoms for the people.

Therefore, so far, he has achieved two major successes, the nuclear agreement with the West in his foreign policy, and a good election that will pave the way for more democratic reforms at home.

Many foreign pundits who wish to see a regime change in Iran would have liked to see the repetition of the 2009 protests and clashes. However, seeing chaos and bloodshed in all the neighboring countries, many Iranians would like to bring about gradual change and improve the situation through peaceful means.

This has been a historical characteristic of Iranians to engage in passive resistance against their oppressors and to tame the invaders. This is why after the Arab invasion in the seventh century AD, when Iran was one of the first countries to fall to Arab invaders, among all the early converts to Islam Iranians were the only people to retain their language and culture and not be absorbed into the dominant Arab culture unlike many former civilizations that are now regarded as Arabs.

Even when the Mongolian hordes under Genghis Khan and Timur Lang (Tamerlane) invaded Iran, massacred many people and devastated the country, Iranians eventually emerged triumphant and tamed and civilized their conquerors.

The current situation in Iran is not comparable to those episodes, but unlike many regional countries that have experienced many domestic upheavals and massacres, such as Iraq, Syria, Libya and even Egypt, Iranians have expressed their opposition by taking part in elections. Practically in all the elections held since the beginning of the revolution when people have been allowed to express themselves and the elections have not been rigged, Iranians have opted for moderate and reformist candidates.

In the long-term this peaceful process will be more effective and more enduring and it will save Iran the fate of many neighboring countries. As the great Iranian poet Hafiz wrote: “The way to felicity in both worlds is being generous with friends and tolerant with enemies.”


1. See: Ali Gharib, The Israel Project Boosts An Iranian Terrorist Organization, Lobelog, March 18, 2016-03-19

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