Does Iran’s Parliamentary Election Matter?

Iran’s Majles (parliament) is a second-tier player in the country's power structure, subordinate to the will and whim of the unelected Guardian Council. Even so, the Majles can play an important role in framing national debates, and the upcoming election will be a crucial test of strength between President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's hard-line allies and more pragmatic conservatives.

TEHRAN – Does Iran’s upcoming Parliamentary election on March 14 deserve to be taken seriously? Or is it simply a sham vote for an emasculated institution?
Paradoxically, Iranian elections are abnormal by both democratic and autocratic standards. While they are neither free nor fair, there are real differences among candidates, and the outcomes are often unpredictable. In contrast to rigged elections in which the victors are pre-determined, Iran’s system allows competitive elections among pre-selected candidates. Hardly anyone predicted the reformist Mohammed Khatami’s resounding presidential victory in 1997, and even fewer foresaw hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s victory in 2005.
For those who view Iran’s democratic glass as being half full, the March 14 Majles elections will mark the 28th national election since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, further entrenching a political culture unique in the Middle East. As Iran scholar Mohsen Milani puts it, “With all its serious flaws, it is through this process that changes in Iranian policy and behavior can be expected.”
But there are valid reasons to view Iran’s democratic glass as being half empty. Candidates deemed insufficiently pious or lacking loyalty to the country’s theocratic constitution cannot run. This year, hundreds of reformist candidates were disqualified. Even a grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini decided against running after he was initially disqualified and his religious values and political loyalties were called into question.       
What’s more, the 290-seat Majles is a second-tier player in Iran’s power structure. On the surface, it looks like any other parliament. Its members draft legislation, ratify international treaties, and sign off on the nation’s annual budget. In theory, they even have the authority to remove cabinet ministers and impeach the president for misconduct.
In practice, however, all of the Majles’s decisions are subject to the approval of the Guardian Council, an unelected body of twelve jurists (all of whom are either directly or indirectly appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei) that has the constitutional authority to vet all electoral candidates and veto any parliamentary legislation. Ironically, in 2003 the reformist parliament passed legislation aimed at limiting the power of the Guardian Council, which predictably rejected it.
Nonetheless, in a political system in which decisions are made by consensus, the Majles can play an important role in framing national debates. The reformist-dominated Majles that served from 2000-2004 comprised allies of Khatami who sought to expand the realm of acceptable political discourse, champion democracy and human rights, and advocate a more conciliatory approach to foreign policy.

By contrast, the current parliament, elected following a massive purge of reformists, began its inaugural session with chants of “Death to America.” Its members share Ahmedinejad’s social conservatism and aversion to diplomatic compromise on the nuclear issue.

In the upcoming Majles elections, the battle between conservatives and reformists has largely been superseded by one between hardliners sympathetic to Ahmedinejad and more pragmatic conservatives less beholden to revolutionary ideology.    
The latter group is coalescing under the leadership of former chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, Tehran mayor Mohammmed Bagher Ghalibaf, and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaii. While these individuals were themselves considered hardliners three years ago, today, compared to Ahmedinejad, they appear moderate.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in;
  1. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

    Angela Merkel’s Endgame?

    The collapse of coalition negotiations has left German Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a stark choice between forming a minority government or calling for a new election. But would a minority government necessarily be as bad as Germans have traditionally thought?

  2. Trump Trade speech Bill Pugliano/Getty Images .

    Preparing for the Trump Trade Wars

    In the first 11 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has failed to back up his words – or tweets – with action on a variety of fronts. But the rest of the world's governments, and particularly those in Asia and Europe, would be mistaken to assume that he won't follow through on his promised "America First" trade agenda.

  3. A GrabBike rider uses his mobile phone Bay Ismoyo/Getty Images

    The Platform Economy

    While developed countries in Europe, North America, and Asia are rapidly aging, emerging economies are predominantly youthful. Nigerian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese young people will shape global work trends at an increasingly rapid pace, bringing to bear their experience in dynamic informal markets on a tech-enabled gig economy.

  4. Trump Mario Tama/Getty Images

    Profiles in Discouragement

    One day, the United States will turn the page on Donald Trump. But, as Americans prepare to observe their Thanksgiving holiday, they should reflect that their country's culture and global standing will never recover fully from the wounds that his presidency is inflicting on them.

  5. Mugabe kisses Grace JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

    How Women Shape Coups

    In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place in the aftermath of the military's overthrow of President Robert Mugabe. But who the eventual winners and losers are may depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.

  6. Oil barrels Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Getty Images

    The Abnormality of Oil

    At the 2017 Abu Dhabi Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, the consensus among industry executives was that oil prices will still be around $60 per barrel in November 2018. But there is evidence to suggest that the uptick in global growth and developments in Saudi Arabia will push the price as high as $80 in the meantime.

  7. Israeli soldier Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

    The Saudi Prince’s Dangerous War Games

    Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working hard to consolidate power and establish his country as the Middle East’s only hegemon. But his efforts – which include an attempt to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon – increasingly look like the work of an immature gambler.