Iran: A Setback for Hardliners and Little Cheer for Reformists
08 March 2016
By Amir Taheri
The final results of Iran's elections on Friday were released yesterday and it
is possible to examine the latest snapshot of opinion within the ruling
Khomeinist establishment. Some analysts dismiss elections in the Islamic
Republic as no more than a charade if only because all candidates are
pre-approved by the Council of Guardians while the Ministry of Interior rather
than an independent election commission is in charge of the whole operation.
However, Iranian elections remain interesting because they offer a glimpse
into the balance of forces within the regime, much like primaries in the US
Republican and Democrat parties. The first item of interest in Iranians
elections is the voter turnout as a measure of public interest in the
exercise. Turnout figures are always hard to establish with accuracy because
there is no way to verify official data.
This time, a month before voting the Interior Ministry reported that 56
million people were eligible to vote. But a week before voting that figure was
brought down to a fraction under 55 million. A day after voting, the ministry
announced that a further three million could not have voted because they did
not have national identity cards. Thus, theoretically at least, the number of
those eligible is at least 58 million.
Official figures claim that 33 million votes were cast of which 32 million
were authenticated. This means that about a million votes were spoiled or
blank. Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli puts the percentage of those who voted
at just over 60 per cent, as opposed to around 58 per cent according to the
alternative setoff figures. But even if we accept his figure, it is still four
per cent lower than the last general election four years ago. In other words,
the hype created by the nuclear ''deal'' with the P5+1 Group led by the US did
not create the ''avalanche of participation'' that President Hassan Rouhani had
Of the nine elections held under the Islamic Republic, yesterday's produced
the second lowest turnout after the first which had only 51 per cent. There
was, however, one major exception: Tehran where, compared to elections four
years ago, voter turnout increased by a whopping 20 per cent to reach, helping
the list backed by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani to win most of the 30
seats reserved for the capital (Rouhani is in the same faction). The
Rafsanjani faction also scored a major victory by winning a majority of the 16
seats of Tehran in the Assembly of Experts, the body of mullahs that could
choose or dismiss the ''Supreme Guide''.
Of equal symbolic importance was the fact that the Rafsanjani-Rouhani faction
succeeded in unseating two of the most high profile ayatollahs of the hardline
radical faction: Muhammad Yazdi and Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi from the
Assembly of Experts (Ayatollah Muhammad Yazdi was President of the Assembly).
But beyond those spectacular successes, the picture is not as encouraging for
the Rafsanjani-Rouhani faction not to mention President Barack Obama who had
hoped for a change of course in Tehran. The next Assembly of Experts will
continue to have a solid hardline majority of 58 percent compared to the
Rafsanjani faction's 17 with ''weathervanes'' holding the balance of its 88
In the Islamic Majlis, the unicameral parliament, the hardliners loyal to
''Supreme Guide'' Ali Khamenei have won 153 of the 290 seats, a slim majority.
The main Rafsanjani faction, known as ''Reformers'' has won seats 67 seats while
a smaller list, closer to Rouhani himself, secured 13 seats. The
''Independents'' won 21 seats. The remaining seats will be decided in a second
round of voting in a month's time.
The final results must be approved by the Council of the Guardians of the
Constitution before they become legal. At the time of writing this analysis, a
lot of horse-trading was going on to allow a few grandee losers to secure a
One grandee who was squeezed in was Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the
Council of the Guardians of the Cosntitution. He had stood for a seat in the
Assembly of Experts in Tehran but was declared stuck at the 17th place, thus
failing to get in. Yesterday, however, the results were altered to let him
squeeze in at 16th place.
There was talk of another grandee securing a seat in the Islamic Majlis. This
was Ghulam-Ali Haddad Adel whose daughter is married to Ayaollah Khamenei's
son. However, he didn't succeed getting a seat in the end because alteration
of results could have led to a split in the Rafsanjani winning coalition.
Friday's election produced a major turnover of the political personnel. First,
the number of female members of the Islamic Majlis was more than doubled,
largely thanks to Tehran where eight women were elected.
Of the incumbent members, a whopping 54 were eliminated while another 30 had
been disqualified as candidates or decided not to run.
Another feature was the continuation of the trend towards the ascendancy of
the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). Those with an IRGC background
accounted for 30 per cent of the members in the outgoing Islamic Majlis. In
the next Majlis that number will rise to 38 per cent. In contrast, the
mullahs, accounting for 18 per cent in the outgoing Majlis will lose further
ground, sinking to 12 per cent in the new parliament. The position of the
military in the legislature is further strengthened by the fact that former
intelligence and security officers have gained at least 12 seats in the new
However, the biggest share, around 40 per cent, belongs to technocrats and
government functionaries. All in all, the new Majlis, compared to the nine
previous ones, has an even narrower social base. The bazaaris, tribal and clan
figures, and professionals such as physicians and engineers, have a smaller
presence in the new Majlis.
The Rafsanjani-Rouhani factions, presenting three lists in the election,
suffered from the fact that the mass-audience television channels were
controlled by the hardliners. That was in part compensated for by the
Persian-language TV services of the BBC and the Voice of America which helped
the narrative favored by ''moderates''. The hardliners, known as
''Fundamentalists'' (Ousul-garayan) also controlled most of the news agencies
and a number of newspapers. The ''moderates'' were compensated by their control
of the government news agency IRNA and a number of newspapers financed by
Rafsanjani or his business associates.
None of the rival lists offered a political program. Thus voters made their
choice on the basis of perceptions they had about candidates. Those who voted
for the Rafsanjani-Rouhani list wanted to show their rejection of the
hard-line policies promoted by Khamenei. The personality of the candidates
also counted, especially in smaller constituencies and among religious and
Though producing no decisive shift in power in Tehran, Friday's election
strengthens the position of those who promote the ''Chinese option'', that is to
say focusing on economic growth combined with good relations with the outside
world and crushing any opposition at home. Those who support the ''North Korean
option'', that is to say a closed economic system, repression at home and
adventurism abroad, have suffered a setback, especially in Tehran and other
The Rafsanjani-Rouhani faction favors better ties with the US and Great
Britain. The faction led by Khamenei has just launched its ''Looking East''
strategy and counts on building an axis with Russia. If anything, the power
struggle in Tehran is likely to intensify as concern about Khamenei's
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.