In the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), a total of 30 elections have been held. In spite of losing popular ground, and despite uninterrupted elections, the clerics in Iran still firmly hold the reins of power because elections are designed to serve the status quo rather than to change it.
Elections in the IRI have aimed to: (1) legitimize the system while discriminating against the majority of the people by declaring them ineligible to run for office; (2) prevent unwanted people (outsiders) from entering the power structure; (3) determine the shares of rival groups (insiders) within the ruling circle, which reduces internal tension; (4) manipulate and orchestrate religious people because their participation in elections is a means of supporting Islam, and (5) make the system appear to be democratically endorsed by the people.
The ruling circle in the IRI includes appointed and elected persons. Those appointed, mainly clergy, enjoy higher power with less — or even no — accountability because it is asserted that they have been divinely chosen for their positions to serve Islam.
The major elective offices in the IRI include the presidency, the legislature, and the Assembly of Experts (AE). Election of the city and town councils is less political and therefore less controlled. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene’i, appoints crucial power-holders such as the six clerical members of the Guardian Council (GC); the 30 members of the Expediency Council; the head of the judiciary branch; the commanders of the Army, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Militia (Basij); the Chief of Police; the head of the National Security Council; and the head of the radio and television broadcasting, among others.
Local and regional governors appointed by the president are publicly controlled by clerics, who are appointed to represent the Supreme Leader in cities and towns, where they deliver Friday sermons. They are not accountable, and they enjoy great local power through their social and religious status. Also, both the processes and the outcomes of elections for positions in the legislative and executive branches are restricted by unelected clerics. Even the president cannot select his cabinet members without consulting with the Supreme Leader. In some cases, Majlis (parliament) deputies travel to the holy city of Qom to consult religious leaders before introducing a bill in the legislature, because they know that the clerical members of the GC have the authority to reject their bills if they find them un-Islamic.
According to the Constitution, the political structure of the IRI is composed of two opposite poles: Shari‘a (Islamic law) and the Republic (people’s will). While elections symbolize the Republic (the rule of the people), Shari‘a represents the religious pole of the structure, which guarantees the rule of clerics and undermines the role of the people. According to Article 4-four of the Constitution, “All civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. This principle applies absolutely and generally to all articles of the Constitution as well as to all other laws and regulations, and the fuqaha’ of the Guardian Council are judges in this matter.”
Clerics legally manipulate elections through two mechanisms. First, the GC is authorized to screen the candidates before allowing them into a race. For example, opponents of the Velayat-e Faqih (rule by the Jurisconsult) are banned from elections as being unfit to hold office in the Islamic system. Second, all elected officials, including the President, are in a subordinate position to the Supreme Leader (the Walayat al-’amr,) of the Umma (the nation), who enjoys absolute power in the system. The Supreme Leader also can remove an unfit President from office, if he desires to do so.
The role of the six clerical members of the GC in elections and law-making is decisive. According to Article 99 of the Constitution, the GC has the responsibility of supervising the elections and the direct recourse to popular opinion and referenda. However, referring to Article 98 and Part 9 of Article 110, which gives the right of interpreting the laws to the GC, they have been developed into a political tool for keeping the entire electoral system under the control of the conservative clerics.
The legislative assembly is deliberately named the “Consultative Assembly” because, in the IRI, this organ “does not hold any legal status if there is no GC in existence” (Article 93), and cannot make laws without the GC’s approval. The GC can declare any law passed by the legislative branch to be unconstitutional or un-Islamic (Article 94). Therefore, the legislative branch cannot pass a law to limit the role of the GC in elections. This order is based on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih.
Khomeini, the founder of the IRI, believed that elections should not undermine clerical rule. He wrote that the people must accept the rule of the clerics and follow their decisions as religious duties. In his book, Islamic Government, Khomeini asserted that
... the ulema [clerics] were appointed by the imam for government and for judgment among people, and their position is still preserved for them ... Ulema are the heirs to the prophets … If a knowledgeable and just jurisprudent undertakes the task of forming the government, then he will run the social affairs that the prophet used to run, and it is the duty of the people to listen to him and obey him.
The third elective body of the IRI is the AE. All candidates are carefully screened, and they must be clergymen. The AE is responsible for selecting, evaluating, and dismissing the Supreme Leader. However, because the members are carefully screened by the GC, whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, the AE members never challenge the Supreme Leader’s performance or decisions. AE elections are mainly competitions among conservative senior clerics. Since 1982, when it was established, the biggest action of the AE has been the selection of ‘Ali Khamene’i as the Supreme Leader.
After reformist Muhammad Khatami’s surprise landslide victory in 1997 and the takeover of the 6th Majlis by reformist representatives, the GC has rigidly applied its control to prevent known reformists from entering political races. The GC, in addition to using its influence among religious people, has hired 30,000 thousand new local employees to carefully watch and screen all candidates who want to run for any office. The tight control over the candidates leaves the voter with fewer choices and less motivation to participate in the elections. Therefore, conservative candidates have a much greater chance to be elected.
Another major institution that plays a significant role in elections is the charity organization the “Imam Khomeini Committee.” The Supreme Leader appoints the head of this organization, which has a several-billion-dollar budget to help poor people. In response to the efforts of this charity, many poorer people tend to support conservative candidates in elections.
Therefore, elections under the current political, legal, and religious structure are at an impasse and move in a vicious circle under the firm control of the clerics. This process only serves the status quo, which is characterized by absolute domination by conservative clerics. In other words, elections in IRI do not have the capacity to bring about any structural change, but only to sustain the theological power structure.
. The Guardian Council is composed of six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six lawyers proposed by the judiciary chief and approved by the Majlis. However, only the clerics have authority to judge and interpret whether a law is un-Islamic.
. More precisely, the notion of Velayat-e Faqih originated in the writings of several Shi‘ite jurists such as Mulla Ahmad Naraqi, who used the idea to legitimize the absolute rule of Fatali Shah Qajar and Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri, who strongly opposed constitutional rule (1906) as an anti-religious measure in Iran. Other predecessors of Khomeini in this regard include Mirza Hasan Shirazi, Mirza Muhammad Taqi Shriazi, and Kashif al-Ghita.
. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Islamic Government. Translated by Joint Publications Research Service (New York: Manor Books, 1979), p. 37.