by Reza H. Akbari
Iranians went to the polls on February 26 to vote for the new members of parliament as well as the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body in charge of electing and removing the country’s most powerful man, the Supreme Leader. Official election results indicate that the country’s reformist and moderate factions won all 30 parliamentary seats in Tehran, a significant gain. On Sunday, the Interior Ministry also announced that two influential hardline clerics have been voted out of the Assembly of Experts. Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the head of the assembly, failed to secure his reelection from Tehran, and Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, recognized as the spiritual guide of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also failed in his reelection bid. The preliminary election results also indicate strong backing for former moderate President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s return to the assembly. Ruling conservatives sidelined Rafsanjani following his decision to play a bridging role between dominant hardliners and the marginalized reformist opposition after the disputed 2009 elections.
Iran’s conservative media is downplaying the gains made by reformist factions by highlighting hardline victories outside of major population centers. With Iran’s eight biggest cities controlling only 57 of the 290 parliamentary seats, there is a strong chance that conservative factions will remain the majority within the legislative body. The national results are still trickling in, and some provincial precincts will probably hold runoffs.
Many opponents of voting in authoritarian systems are quick to dismiss such internal political shifts in Iran as inconsequential given the overall dogmatic nature of the regime. This election cycle was no exception. In the weeks leading up to election day, the proponents and opponents of election participation spilled much ink. Advocates of voting pointed to the importance of civic engagement for the future of reform in the country. Opponents questioned the parliament’s autonomy and criticized its influence. It is not that challenging to dismiss the parliament’s role by simply characterizing it as a tool used by the regime’s elites to preserve some semblance of democracy while they enforce their decrees. However, this view overlooks the position of the parliament as one of the only remaining public arenas for the exercise of factional politics in Iran—a necessary training ground if authentic political parties are to ever take root in the country.
The parliament’s clout—just like many other government institutions—has waxed and waned since the 1979 Revolution. But it would be imprudent to completely reject its impact on educating the public, as well as the politicians, about the process of governing and the role of political parties. Numerous parliamentary decisions—such as forming the management structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), establishing the country’s press laws, and impeaching various influential ministers—have had immediate to mid-term national impact. However, a more important, long-term, and crucial role played by the legislative body is to act as one of the only public arenas for political factions to wrestle freely, challenge their adversaries, and gauge the public’s response. The parliament has also been an essential instrument in facilitating the formation of political factions within the Islamic Republic, without which Iran would resemble a much more dogmatic authoritarian system, such as Bashar al-Assad’s Syria or Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.
The parliament is where factional dissent becomes apparent, politicians walk the talk, and reputations are formed. It is as much a measuring stick for the public as it is for the active political factions. The history of the parliament is full of such examples.
For instance, the rivalry between the former president, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who belonged to the right wing of the Islamic Republic, and Mir Hossein Mousavi, former prime minster and future Green Movement leader, who belonged to the left, became apparent over the latter’s approval process in the second parliament (1984-1988). With Mehdi Karroubi as the speaker, the reformist coalition took control of the sixth parliament (2000-2004) and began the most productive and controversial period in Iran’s recent parliamentary history. The Guardian Council’s mass disqualification of reformist candidates toward the end of the sixth parliament’s tenure, which included sitting reformist lawmakers, set the stage for the conservative takeover in the seventh (2004-2008) and eighth parliaments (2008-2012). However, in the ninth parliament (2012-2016) competition and dissention between the moderate and hardline elements within the faction finally cemented the splits within the conservative ranks. The ninth parliament, by exercising its constitutional powers, was able to force some degree of accountability on the executive branch under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by impeaching ministers and calling for formal hearings for government officials. However, the increasing conflict between Ali Larijani as the speaker of the parliament and the hardline president further clarified the position of the two conservative factions for the public.
Dissension among the conservative ranks is, arguably, one of the reasons behind the formation of a new 2016 election coalition led by the outspoken parliamentary member Ali Motahari that consists of moderate conservatives. In an interview published on his official website, Motahari claims that his new coalition, dubbed the “Voice of the Nation,” is hoping to address the “shortcomings” that exist in both principlist and reformist coalitions. He claims that hardline conservatives do not focus on freedoms, while reformists ignore sensitive cultural issues. It would be premature to label this formation as a new political faction in the country. However, the disagreements among conservatives that began in the current parliament helped motivate Motahari to distinguish himself from the others.
An Evolving Process
The internal dynamics of Iran’s political system are very complex. It is an autocracy but not a monolithic one. The system consists of a maze of formal and informal power structures, ideological and political factions, constitutional assemblies, and an influential military and security apparatus. The relationship between these entities is constantly changing, and there are many personal and institutional rivalries to keep in mind when analyzing the internal decision-making process. Apprehensive about dissent, the more oppressive forces within the system have attempted to ensure uniformity in the makeup of the regime players. However, this tightly locked system has not been immune to internal divisions and cracks. Time and time again, the disposition of the players have changed, factions have split, and individuals have moved to the right or left of the political spectrum. The parliament is a key institution in facilitating this constantly evolving process.
The intricate nature of the regime and the existence of political factions also result in regime durability—a controversial fact highlighted by regime opponents. However, as indicated by the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election—when the authorities imprisoned hundreds of reformist politicians and intellectuals and restricted sociopolitical freedoms—if participation of opposition factions are limited, the regime is more likely to move toward a more oppressive form of government than to collapse.
It’s tempting to dismiss the role of various power centers and blame or praise the chief autocrat, à la the Supreme Leader, for any major policy decision, but the reality is much more complex. Boycotting the election in the belief that the parliament serves no other purpose than to empower the ruling authorities is misguided. After all, Iran’s parliament does matter. Iran’s lumbering bureaucracy, built up of democratic and undemocratic bodies, works together in a clumsy, yet calculated way to form policy, practice governing, and form distinct factional identities. The recent elections in Iran demonstrate that real politics take place in the country, albeit in a constrained fashion.
Reza H. Akbari (@rezahakbari) is a senior program officer at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He conducts research on Iranian domestic politics, U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, Shia politics, and political transition.