What was predicted by skeptics regarding the chances of a more moderate Iran after the February elections is turning into a reality before the elections even kicked off: the Guardian Council which is in charge of approving or barring candidates to the election of the Majlis has not only barred 60% of the 12,000 nominees, it has crushed reformists’ hopes by approving only 1% of reformist nominees.
Furthermore, in the district of Tehran, out of the 760 candidates who were qualified (out of 1,700), only 4 (just over 0.5%) are reformists. Both of Rafsanjani’s sons were disqualified as was Khomeini’s grandson and as were 30 reformist/moderate MP’s in the current parliament.
By doing so, the Guardian Council has exemplified the biggest flaw in Iran’s democracy: if nominees are barred from running for parliament based on political criteria, the members of parliament who are voted in do not reflect 100% of the wishes of the Iranian people. In other words, hardliners don’t have to fight for the votes of reformist voters since reformist nominees are disqualified before the elections even begin.
The ramifications of the decision of the Guardian Council are critical at a time when Tehran is split between Rouhani and his moderate ideals which have led to the signing and the implementation of the nuclear deal and Khamenei and his hardline ideals which idealize the status quo and the revolution.
At stake is the continuing adherence of Iran to the JCPoA, Rouhani’s political future and the nature of the regime itself.
Appeals are being discussed and Rouhani will definitely fight to overturn the decision of the Guardian Council but his hopes, along with the hopes of the Iranians who are hungry for change and the he hopes of Westerners who are worried that an hardline and isolated Iran is dangerous for the region and the world, are slim.
Rouhani who obviously must feel like he rammed into a wall tried to keep upbeat by stating that “The qualification of some of the candidates has not been authenticated…Hopefully the Guardian Council will look into it. And as the president, I will also use all my executive powers in this regard“.
The Guardian Council vs. Democracy
The Guardian Council is made up of 12 members and is in charge of approving/barring nominees to the Presidency, the Majlis (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts, the body in charge of hiring, supervising and firing the Supreme Leader. The 12 members include 6 lawyers (4 hardliners) appointed by Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judicial a staunch hardliner, and 6 clerics (5 hardliners) who are appointed by the Supreme Leader, and Supreme hardliner, Ali Khamenei himself.
The power held within the council is enormous since it can decide, irrevocably, who may or may not run for any of these elections.
In the past, as in the present, it has impeded in the democratic process by barring candidates based on political criteria: In 2004, it barred over 3,600 reformists candidates from running in the election, in 2006 it barred all women candidates, in 2008, it barred most of the reformists including on third of whom were already MP’s in the outgoing government. In 2009, the Guardian Council barred 99% of the reformists candidates.
Furthermore, the nature of the relationship between the Guardian Council and the IRGC is also a point of contention since the Guardian Council has a history of giving preference to ex-IRGC members.
Despite the fact that Iran likes to play up the fact that it is the only democracy in the Middle East, its democracy is severely flawed by two bodies: The Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader, both of which hold powers that are beyond the reach of the Iranian voter and are dedicated to maintain the status quo leaving little room for change.
Criteria for Approving or Barring Nominees
The criteria needed to become a member of parliament in Iran can be split into two main categories: Objective and Political.
- Objective: These criteria state that nominees should be citizens of Iran, aged between of 30 and 75, be in good health and have a Master’s Degree – it’s hard to believe that more reformists than hardliners were disqualified based on these criteria.
- Political: these criteria state that the nominees should “believe in and demonstrate adherence to Islam and the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran”, should “declare loyalty to the constitution and the progressive principle of the absolute guardianship of the jurist (Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) and should be supported by their electoral districts – this is where the Guardian Council’s decision steers Iran away from democracy since these criteria are definitely pro-hardliners.
Now let’s look at the criteria needed to disqualify nominees which can also be split into two categories: Objective and Political:
- Objective: These criteria state that the Guardian Council should bar any nominee who has been convicted of fraud, embezzlement and bribery, was convicted of economic crimes, is a drug smuggler and addict, is “infamous for corruption”, was convicted of apostasy, is major landowners who registered untitled land to their names and nominees who were supposed to resign at least six months before the elections – once again, it is hard to imagine that the Guardian Council barred more reformists than hardliners based on these criteria.
- Political: The criteria to bar a nominee include being convicted of treason, supporting or associated with the Pahlavi regime, associating and/or sympathizing with organizations which were declared illegal, convicted of crimes against the Islamic Republic of Iran, convicted of violating Shari’a laws – and once again, it’s evident that these criteria were used to bar reformists.
But since the Guardian Council is so powerful, it can sometimes disqualify candidates for simpler reasons: On January 17th 2016, the Guardian Council stated that it had effectively barred 25% of the candidates for not meeting the required criteria and barred another 29% because it could not “authenticate” their qualifications.
Even Less hope For Change
Rouhani obviously knew what was at stake and already in August, he began his campaign to change the nature of the Guardian Council’s role in Iran’s democracy by maintaining that the Council’s role was to be viewed as “supervisory” and not “managerial”. As such, Rouhani was trying to invalidate the Guardian Council’s political influence. The response to Rouhani’s call was swift and harsh
Mohammad Ali-Jafari, the chief of the IRGC blasted Rouhani and accused him of enabling “foreign infiltration” and weakening the “effective bases of the revolution like the Guardian Council”. He went on to add that there could be “no questioning of the revolutionary beliefs and ideals of society to gain the consent of the dominating regime of the Great Satan (the USA)”.
But Jafari was not alone: Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judiciary and the person entrusted to nominate the 6 lawyers in the Guardian Council, praised the Guardian Council for its ability to influence the nature of the nominees in the elections in Iran.
The coup de grace came from Khamenei himself one week later when he chided Rouhani (indirectly) by criticizing those who questioned the fairness of elections in Iran: “Unfortunately one of the bad habits that some in the country have is that they constantly question the health of elections. They frequently argue before the elections about fraud, worries that this or that will happen. This is wrong“.
Unfortunately for Rouhani and the people who were hoping for reform, he was right and Khamenei was wrong: The behavior of the Guardian Council has turned the upcoming elections into a fraud by barring reformists and promoting hardliners. Yes, the Iranian populace can still voice its hopes for change by voting in the remaining reformists but line has been drawn: the regime wants to squash any hopes of change or reform and it will most probably succeed in doing so.