Unless they have been hiding under a rock, most people will realise that there’s an election coming up in the US at the end of this year. And whoever wins will have to face the usual thorny challenges thrown up by the Middle East. Fewer people however, are likely to be aware that in the Middle East upcoming elections have the potential to influence events in the longer term in that region. On 26 February Iranians will go to the polls to elect members to the Consultative Assembly (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts.
This year, the election is being held in the shadows of a successful negotiated outcome to the nuclear issue and a consequent relief to sanctions. President Rouhani has been quick to take advantage of the newfound economic optimism, signing multi-billion euro economic deals with Italy, following on from a visit to Tehran by President Xi of China, where more than a dozen accords were signed.
In the normal course of events, one would expect Rouhani’s moderate allies (along with some reformists) to extract electoral advantage from delivering what he was elected to do in 2013; negotiate an end to the sanctions. But Iranian elections are never conducted on a level playing field because the dynamic tension between conservative and moderate/reformist forces is ever present. In this case the hurdle that all candidates must pass is vetting by the Council of Guardians. The Council is dominated by conservatives given that its 12 members consist of six appointed by the Supreme Leader and six recommended by the Head of the Judiciary (but formally appointed by parliament), although the Judiciary Head is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader.
The parliamentary elections list has already seen the conservative forces limit the potential electoral spin-off that could accrue to Rouhani’s allies as a result of the beginning of the end of Iran’s economic isolation. More than 7,300 of the 12,000 candidates have been disqualified. These are overwhelmingly the reformist candidates; however, with a review process allowed some of them will likely be reinstated.
Perhaps the most interesting sub-drama though, has been the tussle over candidate selection for the Assembly of Experts who, among other duties, are charged with selecting the new Supreme Leader.
There are rumours of Ayatollah Khamenei’s (the 76-year-old Supreme Leader's) ill-health, so the composition of the Assembly of Experts is taking on even more importance. The 88 clerical members of the Assembly are directly elected and serve an eight-year term, so they will, in all likelihood, meet to appoint a new Supreme Leader during their term in office. The true power lies with the Supreme Leader, so the moderates and reformists see the election as a way of advancing their own interests at some point in the future.
The only sticking point is the fact that the Council of Guardians has also sought to block Rouhani’s aspirations for a change to the Assembly’s make-up. They have allowed only 166 of the 801 candidates for the Assembly election. Among those who were reportedly disqualified was Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader and leader of the Islamic revolution. Hassan is generally considered to be from the reformist camp and, along with the candidatures of past and present moderate presidents Rouhani and Rafsanjani (both of whom will be allowed to contest the election), could have formed the nucleus of a powerful anti-conservative bloc in a key Iranian institution.
For all the ‘spectator at a slow-motion car crash’ interest in the Trump candidacy in the United States, elections in the Islamic Republic in February may provide a more interesting political battle between conservative and moderate forces.