Iran's Political Future After 2020 Election

On February 26, four experts discussed the sweeping victory by conservative factions in Iran’s parliamentary elections. Speakers included:

•    Robin Wright (moderator) – Distinguished Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center 
•    Ali Vaez – Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group
•    Ariane Tabatabai – Associate Political Scientist, RAND Corporation 
•    Kenneth Katzman – Specialist, Middle East Affairs, Congressional Research Service

The following is an edited transcript from the event hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center. 

Robin Wright: The election, the 11th for parliament since the 1979 revolution, was the most rigged in Iranian history. Ninety sitting members of parliament, almost one third of the 290 seats, were disqualified from running again, even though they were deemed by the same 12-member Council of Guardians to have been qualified to run four years earlier. The vetting prevented reformists from fielding candidates in 230 of the 290 seats. In Tehran, 134 conservative candidates ran against 28 reformist candidates for the city's 30 seats, which is the largest single bloc of seats of any place. In Mashhad, which is Iran's second largest city, no reformist candidates were on the ballot. In all, more than 7,200 candidates were disqualified. That's almost half. But there's still a lot of candidates. 7,148 ran from 31 provinces for 290 seats. This is a dramatic transition from the early days of the revolution when there was one party. But there was so much squabbling among Iranian factions in those early days that the Islamic Republic Party disintegrated very quickly in the early 80s. Today, in contrast, Iran has 82 national parties and 34 provincial parties. On average, there were 17 candidates for every seat. And we think having two parties is tough. Needless to say, the new parliament is going to be vastly different from the last one. 

Let me provide a little bit of context. In 2016, a bloc of reformists, centrists and moderate conservatives won 41 percent of the seats in parliament. Hardliners won 29` percent. Independents took a 28 percent. But parliament, as we all know, did very little to change the political dynamics, the economic situation, or to open up Iran socially. So their performance was one of several factors in this election. 

Let me give you some numbers of this election. And remember, these are tentative figures because some of it is still being sorted out and there are at least a dozen seats that will be contested in a runoff in April. But so far, about 19, some say 20, reformists or centrists won seats, down from 121 in the 2016 election. That's only six percent of parliament now, which is down from 41 percent. Conservative and hardline factions, including candidates closely aligned with the Revolutionary Guard, won 221 of the 290 seats--76 percent. That's up from 29 percent in the last election. Again, these numbers may fluctuate a little bit as they sought out some of the count. But this is where we stand now. In other words, they triple their presence in parliament. The independents won 38 seats or about 13 percent, which is down from 28 percent in 2016, but still twice as many as the reformists this time around.

The most striking thing about the election was the low turnout, 42.6 percent, the lowest since the 1979 revolution. But I want to offer some context here or a bit of comparison. In U.S. midterm elections in 2014, only 37 percent turned out. We actually had a lower turnout than Iran's election. In 2018, we had 50 percent. In presidential elections, not since 1968 has the United States reached 60 percent turnout. So let's put the turnout in context. 

But the regime does cite the turnout as a reflection of legitimacy, credibility and popularity of the revolution. So the numbers are actually very important, and it [the regime] tried to downplay the low turnout. The election came just days after the outbreak of the first coronavirus case in Iran, and the supreme leader blamed Iran's enemies for misinformation, disinformation and exaggerating the threat, thus discouraging people from turning out. I will tell you that the numbers in Iran are staggering. On Monday [February 24], there were 61 reported cases. Yesterday, [February 25] there were 95. And today [February 26] there are 139. So it is indeed an issue. 

But Iran's election was also in context of protests in 2017 and 2018, another round of protests in November that was the largest since the 1979 revolution, and then the shooting down of the Ukrainian aircraft, which led to a third round of protests. So there is greater dissatisfaction inside Iran than at any time since the revolution, and that was reflected in the polls. So the bottom line is that the next parliament is going to be vastly different in its outlook and its makeup because principlists, who are the most committed to the rigid interpretation of revolutionary ideals and goals, will have the dominant voice.

So let me begin with Ali and then Ariane and then Ken to ask the basic question how does the election impact the balance of political power inside Iran? What factions and what people are going to shape the future? Who what are the names that we need to watch, Ali, to turn it over to you?

Ali Vaez: I want to start by saying we've seen this movie before. There is a lot of déjà vu here. I know it sounds like a turn shifted right. But it's a shift right in Iranian politics that we've seen before. In 2004, after Iran's negotiations with the three European countries, France, Britain and Germany basically stumbled and it became clear that it was not going anywhere. The reformists at the time were totally discredited. Internally, they were in a similar situation. They had failed to push through domestic reforms. They had failed in their foreign policy, a lot of it due to the Bush administration's obstructionism at the time.

What happened was the Guardian Council used that opportunity to basically disqualify 80 members of the parliament in 2004. In fact, this year, after some reconsideration, the final number of MPs who were disqualified was 75. So in 2004, it was higher. The incumbency rate in 2004 was 20 percent, which is the same right now. And what happened in 2004 was, basically, the parliamentary election paved the ground for the election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005. I think it is more or less the direction in which we're moving right now.

But the question is in a country that has, at least in the past few months, has proven again and again that the parliament has been so neutralized, and neutered, that it is basically irrelevant almost in Iranian politics. If you look at some of the key decisions in the past few months that the country had to deal with, for instance, the decision to triple the fuel prices back in November of 2019 that resulted in massive protests, the parliament wasn't even involved in that decision. And when they wanted to actually try to bring a bill to the floor and challenge it, an order came from the supreme leader's office that this is not an issue that you need to interfere in. The FATF bills that were sent to the parliament and approved by the parliament basically got stuck in other councils in the system.

So it's not a surprise given the disqualification rate, given the general sense of frustration within the society with political stagnation, with economic stagflation, the sense of hopelessness and despondency that we saw a low participation rate. But the question is why the supreme leader cared so much to have a pliant parliament at this stage in the Islamic Republic's history. And my own guess, and this is just a guess, is that he probably is thinking about structural reforms, and for that reason, he needs a parliament that doesn't pose a lot of challenge to constitutional changes.

This happened again in 1989, the last year of Ayatollah Khomeini's supreme leadership. He brought about constitutional reforms that bifurcated the political system and actually created two CEOs for running the Islamic Republic. And the record of the past 30 years has basically proven that's a highly problematic setup. The president is constantly fighting with the supreme leader because this rivalry basically brings to the fore the inherent contradiction in the Islamic Republic structure between divine sovereignty and popular sovereignty.

I think the supreme leader realizes that his successor probably would not have the same weight, the same control over the system, and would not be able to manage this. And so it's an inherent fault in the system that could be the cause of its undoing at a critical juncture in the history of the Islamic Republic. So my guess is he probably wants to bring about the change the system from a presidential system into a parliamentary system so that the president or the prime minister is not directly elected by the people that is just a guess. 

Another interesting trend that we see in this election is the militarization of Iranian politics. Currently, the debate about who should be the next speaker of the parliament is between two former Revolutionary Guards commanders, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who was the former mayor of Tehran, and Sadeq Mahsouli, who was from the Paydari faction and their coalition allowed them to take over all the seats in Tehran, and now they're debating about who should be the next speaker of parliament. But this is quite unusual.

We've seen former Revolutionary Guards in the parliament and the cabinet, but we've rarely seen a former Revolutionary Guard as a speaker of the parliament. And imagine if the next president is also a former Revolutionary Guard. You really see the militarization of Iranian politics. So these are interesting trends to watch, to see if the coalition that was created just two days prior to the election will survive the initial phases of political jockeying when the parliament sits.

But it is also connected to the question of succession. The person who brought the Paydari faction and Qalibaf's team together, to my knowledge, is Ebrahim Raisi, the current chief of the judiciary, who is seen as a potential successor to the Supreme Leader. The fact that he could actually bring the conservatives together, and remember that he is also the only hardline candidate in Iran in the past two decades who ran as the single representative of the camp in 2017. It is quite telling about his growing influence in the system. And I think he's a person to watch for sure. I doubt he would run for president next year, but I think he is really preparing himself for succeeding Ayatollah Khamenei.

Final two points, impact on the presidential election: Again, as I said, if past is prelude, it means that we will also have a hardline president coming to power in 2021. But that's not a given. It really depends on two key factors: One is this current incoming parliament's performance. If they actually get engaged in petty fights all the time and prove to be totally incapable of bringing about the kind of change and reforms that people actually want, it would lower the stock of the conservatives and hardliners significantly in the run up to the elections.

And the second factor, which is even more important, is the elections in this country [ U.S.] in November. If there is a U.S. president in office that the Iranian system believes it can negotiate with, I doubt that they would go for someone who has the profile of former President Ahmadinejad. And finally, this is quite telling that the landslide victory of the hardliners came in an election in Iran that had the lowest rate of participation. But it basically suggests that the system is moving gradually towards minority rule. That the outcome of this 42 percent--the 20-odd percent who always come and vote are the die-hard supporters of the system, and they will come to the streets and defend this regime regardless of the price. The system will focus on making sure that it can take care of them as their own core constituency, the more pious, the poorer strata of Iranian society.

I think the regime is coming to the conclusion to give up on the middle class, and that it basically cannot get them on board with its own vision and the system's vision for the future of the Islamic Republic. So you put these two things together, militarization of Iranian politics and the focus on the core constituents of the system, that's only bad news for Iran, for the future of the region, and for Iran's relations with the United States.

Ariane Tabatabai: I largely agree that the parliament has proven to be even more of a rubber stamp than it had been in the past. But I think there a couple of things here. One is that the de-legitimization in this particular election has shown that the gap between the population and the regime is growing wider. And that's significant. It's playing out in the parliament. It played out in the elections, and it played out in the events that directly pre-dated the election, the protests of 2019, the protest that followed the downing of the airliner in early 2020 right after the killing of Soleimani.

All of those things are showing that the regime is increasingly concerned about losing credibility, losing legitimacy within the population, while at the same time trying to consolidate power and allowing the Guards to consolidate their own power. So we're seeing the regime do two things at the same time that are sort of counterintuitive, and to some degree counterproductive, which is on the one hand to show to the population that it is in control, that it is consolidating power, while at the same time seeing the population become increasingly upset and more and more questioning the legitimacy of the system more generally. Not just the presidency, not just to the supreme leader but the system more generally as well.

The [Revolutionary] Guards, of course, made some gains in this election. Qalibaf is a perfect example. He's the former mayor of Tehran, but he's also a former Guard. The contenders for the next speaker are now likely to be Guards, which is quite a departure from the past. But the IRGC affiliates have made quite a lot of gains. This is not new. This is something that they had started to do already under Ahmadinejad and prior to that.

The Guards had really tried to make gains within different power centers, within the country, within the system. The idea being that if the Guards want to influence politics within Iran, and only do so from the confines of the IRGC, from a branch of the Iranian armed forces, that they wouldn't have the same legitimacy that they would have if they're able to influence the course of politics, the course of decision-making, from different power centers. And we're seeing them try to do that from the parliament, from the executive branch and, more generally, from different important parts of the system.

So this election, specifically, is a next step in that in that direction--allowing the Guards to assert themselves in different power centers and, should the succession take place under this Majles, this parliament, allowing them to push for their preferred candidates from different power centers rather than just from a branch of the armed forces, which would be seen as more dubious that it does if it's coming from different power centers.

An overlapping faction that has also made gains is Ahmadinejad's men--and they are mostly men. So Ahmadinejad's followers and loyalists have been trying to rehab their image after essentially seven years of a Rouhani presidency. Recalling that Ahmadinejad left when Iran was fairly isolated politically, economically, the Rouhani presidency and the Rouhani platform in the 2013 elections was really a negation of everything that Ahmadinejad had done and everything Ahmadinejad stood for. So over the past few years, specifically since 2017 when Rouhani was reelected, there's been a push to get Ahmadinejad, and not just Ahmadinejad as a person but the platform and the sort of ideas that he stood for, to come back in the public sphere to gain traction once again. We're seeing that pay off a little bit now with the parliamentary elections.

I want to point to one specific person who might actually be familiar to many of you, Fereydoon Abbasi, who used to be the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization. So again, someone who is a fairly well-known hardline candidate, now a member of the parliament, who is an Ahmadinejad loyalist, who had gone away from Iranian politics for a bit and who's now making a comeback.

So those two factions together, I think are pointing to Iran going more toward the right. But the overlap between the Ahmadinejad loyalists and the IRGC affiliates is particularly interesting and tells us a lot about what may happen next.

I want to just point to the speaker issue again. Ali Larijani is stepping down. Larijani is a conservative but he's actually been known to say to follow the system on some core decisions, including the JCPOA. He was instrumental in shielding Rouhani when the JCPOA talks were happening, when there was a lot of push back in the Majles against Rouhani. His coming in and playing a role, allowing the JCPOA to move forward and shielding Rouhani and shielding the negotiators from the criticism of the Majles, was really critical in allowing the JCPOA to finally move forward and be implemented starting in 2016. With him now stepping down, and potentially being replaced by two people who are much more hardline and who may not be as willing to play ball with Rouhani, is also pretty significant in itself.

Kenneth Katzman:  Although there's a consensus that Iran for the past 41 years has been an adversary of the United States, it may not be an enemy. There may have been times of cooperation against the Islamic State. But there is general agreement that Iran is an adversary of the United States.

I want to push back a little on the election. There seems to be a narrative around town that the regime is running scared. It's on its back foot. It's on the ropes. It's  nervous. And I want to push back on that. I think it takes a lot on the part of the regime to screen out this many critical candidates in the election. If you do that, you had to have anticipated that there could be a popular backlash when you did that. So I actually see the regime as having a lot of confidence right now. Yes, their economy has been damaged by U.S. sanctions. Yes, there is a lot of grumbling, a lot of grievances. But I see the exclusions of the candidates, these widespread exclusions, as a sign actually of the regime's confidence that, if there are protests, they can handle it.

What I look for, and what I think we look for as political scientists is are the security services cracking? Are there defections? Is there hand wringing about what to do about protests? And to be honest with you, I do not see signs of that. I did not see any cracks in the IRGC, the Basij, the Ministry of Interior forces, the law enforcement forces. I have seen no cracks in the security forces in any of these recent protest movements that have taken place. They did not roll back the fuel price increases that caused the uprising in November.

Let's put it in perspective. There have been protests in Iraq and Lebanon, which knocked the prime ministers of those two countries out of the box. Those prime ministers resigned because of protests in Iran. There has not been one single resignation of even a cabinet minister on account of the November protests or the Ukraine airliner protests. So, I'm sorry to say, I'm not seeing a lot of nervousness or regime dissolution. 

The IRGC are competing now and more in the political system, moving out of the barracks and more into political competition. They've been running for president consistently and consistently lost, and maybe they're hoping to win next year for presidency. We'll see who runs.

But let's be blunt. The IRGC -- and Soleimani obviously was a key architect -- has accomplished the ability to project power anywhere in the region. And that that is not an accident. And that has given the IRGC a lot of confidence, not only in the region, not only in the confrontation with the United States, but also in the political structure within Iran. They can advertise that they've done some things here. They knocked out 40 percent of Saudi Arabia's oil production in September. Let's not forget. They hit 19 targets with missiles that they engineered with precision that nobody in this town ever knew they had. Everybody in this town was shocked at the precision of that strike on Saudi Aramco in September. So they have demonstrated capabilities that I think have given them confidence even in Iranian politics going forward.

Wright: One of the interesting things that you're pointing out about the IRGC is that in 2009, during the Green Movement uprising, there were barracks for the IRGC troops, where the young members got up on the roof and were shouting "Death to the dictator." You saw a much more visible opposition from within the IRGC back then versus today. So I want to look forward. Ali mentioned that Raisi is not going to run for the presidency. So who do you think are the names that we should watch for the presidency? Who should we be watching? And how do you think that the political future plays out over the next year during this pivotal transition? Whether it's parliament's agenda, the regime's agenda domestically, what do you think they're striving to do, given the pressure they're feeling economically, and who are the players that are likely to emerge?

Vaez: So that's as a difficult question to answer as predicting the results of the U.S. elections just nine months away. But basically, if the constitutional reform that I talked about does not happen in the next few months and we have a presidential election, which is again quite possible, this would be probably Ayatollah Khamenei's last president. If you look at the previous record of his relationship with the four presidents who have served under him, he has had contentious relations with all of them. He has gone for the old guard of the Islamic Republic in the form of Rouhani or Rafsanjani and the new guard of the Islamic Republic in the form of Ahmadinejad, and all of it has been problematic.

So, at this stage, he really wants someone who he can work with. Now, if you look at the stock of the reformist or the moderate forces of Iranian politics in this election, it became very clear that not only the system would not allow them to run, it has actually completely excluded them. By the way, it's a really interesting striking change of fortunes. Just one statistics that is of interest: Qalibaf, who got the highest number of votes in Tehran, in fact, got less votes than the top five sitting members of parliament from Tehran in the last election. They all got more votes than Qalibaf. And if you look at the rest of the conservative list that got elected from Tehran, none of them got more than 700,000 votes. Whereas the first 30 of Tehran MPs in the last election all got more than a million votes.

So it's very telling about the change of fortune of the moderates. But the moderates have not just lost this election, they've lost their constituency. So, in the upcoming presidential election, I don't think they have a chance to either get qualified or, if they are qualified, to actually win. Again, if we have another Trump term, I think the Iranians would want to come up with someone who is as much of an unpredictable, sort of hardline character as his American counterpart.

But you might get someone who is just a bureaucrat, a technocrat, someone who doesn't have a lot of ambitions, but has proven during the track record of serving in the system as a capable manager. If you look at some of the supreme leader's appointments in the past few years, like the heads of some of these religious or revolutionary foundations that he appoints personally, and they're only accountable to him like [Parviz] Fattah, for instance, is one of those characters. 

I doubt you would see someone who is close to Ahmadinejad because, although I agree with Ariane that you see a comeback of people around Ahmadinejad, but those are actually people who at the end started distancing themselves from Ahmadinejad and his direction in Iranian politics. So I would look for mostly people -- I can't rule out Larijani or some of the old guard -- but someone who is not too ambitious, who doesn't pose too much challenge to the [supreme] leader.

And in that sense, this parliament is actually a test, because you have a group of freshmen MPs that the supreme leader calls young revolutionary politicians. They are not career politicians. They are really fresh faces. They don't have a lot of experience. And, depending on their performance, some of them might actually be potential candidates. But my own expectation is somebody who is either from, again, if we have a hardline president here, from the hardliner camp in Iran with a technocratic background.

If, however, there's a Democrat who's in favor of coming back to the JCPOA and engaging the Iranians, then you might get someone who is more moderate or more pragmatic. But again, I don't think we will go back to the reformist camp. I think that story is done for the foreseeable future.

Tabatabai: Larijani's either decided not to run [for parliament] because he wants to spend more time with family or he's thinking about running [for president]. But beyond that, if the comparison with the previous elections, 2000 for 2005 is right, then I think that some of the more viable candidates may not actually be any one that are currently on anybody's radar--Ahmadinejad being kind of the poster child for this. Nobody really expected him to be a viable candidate; he was running against Rafsanjani. Talk about old guard right there.

So, it'll be interesting to see who manifests himself in the next couple years, a year and a half. But I think that some of the more promising candidates may be the ones that we're not even thinking about right now. 

But in terms of what this Majles' agenda is, there is the big picture issue of the succession. It is very likely that this Majles will be in place when the supreme leader dies and is replaced. And I think part of the job will be to pave the way for the next supreme leader or whatever will come next. 

But there are also short-term things that this Majles will try to achieve, and that is more directly tied to the type of people who are now in the Majles. So going into 2021, and the Iranian presidential elections, Rouhani, of course, can't run again. He would have completed his two terms of four years as mandated by the Iranian constitution, but somebody close to him may want to run. And what this Majles will try to achieve is to discredit Rouhani and therefore the moderates more generally in order to make it much more difficult for anyone who is not a hardliner, who is not a principlist, to become a viable candidate. 

Wright: One interesting point on the presidency. In many ways, being former president of Iran is one of the most dangerous jobs in Iran. At least two of Rafsanjani's children have gone to jail. Khatami is banned from appearing in public, going to public events and being quoted in the media and traveling outside of Iran. Ahmadinejad had two vice presidents who were charged with corruption. At least one of them went to jail. So, you wonder what's going to happen to Rouhani given the fact that his agenda has largely unraveled. 

Katzman:  I'm looking at Raisi very carefully in terms of next year for the following reasons. Khamenei loves him. Khamenei appointed him to be the head of the Astaani Qods Razavi, the Mashhad shrine of the Imam Reza Foundation a few years ago. Very important post, controls almost the entire province's economy. Then he appointed him to head the judiciary. Yes, he lost to Rouhani in the last presidential election. That's true, however, what last week's election showed is that the regime is perfectly willing to fix the candidate field to favor who they want.

Raisi might assume that the supreme leader and the Guardian Council will simply fix the field to give him a free run. Khamenei went from being president of Iran to supreme leader. So there is precedent for an Iranian president to move up to supreme leader. My analysis is this is something the supreme leader is looking at as well, to engineer Raisi into the presidency next year.

Wright: Before we get to the broader issue of dealing with the outside world, Ariane, you made a point about this will be the supreme leader's last parliament.

Tabatabai: I think we've been saying that a number of years now. But I mean, it can be, right. And it is likely that it will be. I'm not predicting.

Wright: Well he's 80, 81 in July. But we don't believe he's suffering from any health issue right now. He's surprised everyone with how sturdy he is.

Vaez: His father lived to see his 105. 

Tabatabai: The system is certainly preparing to lay out the groundwork for the succession, and that includes any steps that may be taken in the parliament. So, I'm not trying to predict when Khamenei may die and when the succession may take place.