Iran: The Predetermined Election

The institutional setup in Iran is designed to preserve the power of Ayatollah Khamenei and the conservative establishment. 

“Since the beginning of the revolution until now we've had [more than] 30 elections — which one has not been free?” This statement was declared by Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, six months ago. He continued: “They shouldn't constantly say elections must be free. It's obvious that elections should be free.” At that time, reformists were begging for a free election in the country.

Maybe Khamenei is right and elections are free in Iran. Even he was elected as supreme leader by the Assembly of Experts. And the members of that assembly are elected by direct public vote for eight-year terms. Look at the presidential election: there were 686 people who registered their names to enter the race as candidates. How can this not be a free election?

After the revolution, Iranians have elected the Assembly of Experts, members of parliament, city and town councils, and the president. But there is a hidden and well-created mechanism that protects the people in power. No one outside of that circle or without their permission can hold any meaningful positions in Iran. This year, the Central Executive Election Board, which is a new institution, was formed to give the conservative establishment even more control over the process of the presidential election.

The President

Every four years, hundreds of people register their name to become a candidate in the presidential election. This year, the vast majority of registered candidates were not allowed to enter the race. Only eight candidates received the green light.

According to Iran’s presidential election law, all Iranians can register their name for candidacy by handing in copies of their ID cards and an official photo. The only thing they have to do after that is to wait for the Guardian Council’s decision. Members of this council decide who is qualified to join the presidential election. This is where the clear obstacle for being a candidate in the election becomes visible.

The Guardian Council judges registrants according to six criteria that are stated in the constitution. These criteria include “having the ability of management and leadership,” “having a good reputation, trustworthiness and piety,” and “being faithful and a believer in the foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country.” These requirements are vague enough to let the Guardian Council interpret them based on its own political favor. For instance, the council’s members strongly believe that reformists are western mercenaries. Thus, former President Mohammad Khatami, for example, is not seen as having “a good reputation.”

Imagine the president is elected without any argument about the election’s accuracy, and no one has a shred of doubt over the result. Even then, the president is only the second person in power. Article 113 of Iranian constitution states: “After the office of leadership, the president is the highest official in the country.”

Choosing the vice president might be one of the first decisions that the president makes. However, if Supreme Leader Khamenei does not agree with this decision, the president must choose a different vice president, as it happened four years ago. After Iran’s disputed election in 2009, Ahmadinejad appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as his vice president, but later received a missive from the supreme leader that ordered him to dismiss Mashaei.

The Supreme Leader

How does the leader hold such power and how did he reach the leadership cathedra? The first supreme leader of Iran was Ruhollah Khomeini. No one elected him. It was during the revolution hysteria and, at that time, no one knew what exactly the concept of an Islamic Republic meant. A majority of Iranians strongly believed in Khomeini. He was an iconic figure of the revolution and people even thought they could see his face on the moon.

When Khomeini gained power in 1979, he was 75-years-old. Three years after the 1979 revolution, an assembly was established to make a decision over Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader. That was the Assembly of Experts (or Council of Experts), which elected Ali Khamenei as the leader after Khomeini’s death in 1989.

According to the Iranian Constitution, the assembly is in charge of supervising, dismissing and electing the supreme leader. The assembly’s members can even topple the supreme leader, but the only substantial action they have taken until this day was in 1985 when they chose Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri as the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini. At that time, Montazeri held the second highest religious and political position in Iran after Khomeini, and was the supreme leader’s closest ally. Four years later, however, Khomeini dismissed him from all of his positions after a dispute, and the assembly chose Khamenei as the next supreme leader. 

The 88 members of the Assembly of Experts must also pass a vetting process; and again the entity that assesses their qualifications is the Guardian Council. All the members of the Assembly of Experts are clerics and, due to the vetting process, only those who are close to Khamenei will have the opportunity to run for office.

Even these obedient members are not satisfying the supreme leader. Last year, one figure close to Khamenei revealed that he had told the experts: "I do not accept [that] the assembly can say that the supreme leader is still qualified, but then question why such and such official was directed in a certain direction, or why I allowed a certain official [to do certain things]." This part of his speech was also circulated on English-language media websites.

The institution that Khamenei can fully trust in is the Guardian Council.

The Guardian Council

This council consists of twelve members. Six of them are faqihs (clerics who are experts in Islamic Law) and are appointed by the supreme leader. The six other members are jurists, to be elected by the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament). The Majlis cannot elect them directly. First, the head of Iran’s judiciary, currently Sadegh Larijani, introduces several jurists — and then MPs will elect six people among them. The crucial point here is that the head of the judiciary is not elected, but appointed by the supreme leader.

The twelve members of the Guardian Council have almost unlimited power and implement the supreme leader’s unpublicized orders. According to the constitution, they are in charge of interpreting the constitution of Iran, ensuring the compatibility of legislation passed by the Majlis with the criteria of Islam and the constitution, supervising all elections, and approving candidates to the Assembly of Experts, the presidency and the Majlis.    

In 2004, the Guardian Council disqualified 4000 candidates for the election of the seventh Majlis — 80 of them were MPs in the sixth Majlis. As a response to this mass limitation for reformists in Iran, 120 members of parliament submitted resignations but they were unable to change the council’s decision.

On May 21, 2013, the council again showed its power and disqualified Hashemi Rafsanjani from the upcoming presidential election. He was the fourth president of Iran, a member of the Assembly of Experts until his resignation in 2011, and still serves as the chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council of Iran.

The only person who can limit the Guardian Council’s power is the supreme leader. Eight years ago, Khamenei dismissed a decision by the council in the run-up to the presidential election. The Guardian Council had disqualified the reformists’ candidate Mostafa Moein, but Khamenei ordered the council to let him enter the race.

Despite the Guardian Council’s ultimate control over the presidential election and the provision in the presidential election law that gives the Interior Ministry the power to regulate the election mechanism, the supreme leader's allies were doubtful whether this year’s election would have the desired result. This is why a new entity was established for that purpose in January 2012. 

The Central Executive Election Board

One of the Khamenei’s main concerns about the June 14 election is outgoing President Ahmadinejad. The supreme leader’s allies and conservatives called a group of Ahmadinejad supporters a "deviant faction." The most famous figure of this group was Mashaei, who had registered for candidacy but was disqualified by the Guardian Council. Despite the strong collaboration of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei during the president's first term in office, after his reelection in 2009, he showed signs of disobedience. This power struggle became obvious in April 2011, when Khamenei ordered Ahmadinejad to reinstall the intelligence minster which the president had dismissed. Subsequently, Ahmadinejad retreated from the public eye for eleven days, skipping cabinet meetings.

According to the old Presidential Election Law, the Interior Ministry planned and supervised the election. Thus, the supreme leader feared the election result would be manipulated in favor of a candidate from Ahmadinejad’s camp.

Last year, however, the Majlis passed a new law that made the elections the purview of the Central Executive Election Board. The newly created board has 11 members: the Interior Minister; the Attorney General (appointed by the head of Judicial Power); an MP; the Intelligence Minster (the supreme leader has a direct role in suggesting him to parliament); and seven religious, political and social figures. These seven people must previously pass the vetting process by the Guardian Council.

Preservation of power

Many analysts believe that shaping this board was the last nail in the coffin of the Iranian presidential election. Even before this change, no one could become president without the consent of Khamenei and other high-ranking clerics. But after the problematic 2009 election, conservatives are very eager to avoid any new difficulties. They are employing all possible mechanisms to ensure that a candidate who is obedient to the conservative establishment, enters the presidential office.

The 2009 election was not the first time that politicians objected to an election result. In 2005, when Ahmadinejad entered office for the first time, the same objection was heard. At that time, his rivals did not have the courage to speak up and publicly voice their objection with Supreme Leader Khamenei. Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad’s main rival in the 2005 election, announced he would tell his objections to God. Mehdi Karroubi, another contender, who is now under house arrest, resigned from all of his official positions. The ironic part of those incidents was that the reformist government did not dare to disobey the supreme leader’s orders, and thus approved the election result which made Ahmadinejad president.

Nowadays, the leader’s office cannot be a 100% sure that Ahmadinejad’s government will acquiesce, as the reformists did in 2005. Creating the Central Executive Election Board was a solution to control Ahmadinejad’s power over the election process. In this new situation, one can say that even though the physical vote counting center is still located in the Interior Ministry’s building in Tehran, it is really located in the supreme leader’s office.

[Note: The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous and has used a pseudonym.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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