2016 Elections in Iran

2016 Iranian general elections, CC 4.0

2016 Iranian general elections, CC 4.0

2016 Elections in Iran

In this article, we will discuss the 2016 elections in Iran, addressing both the parliamentary elections, as well as the Assembly of Experts elections in the country. We will discuses key actors, political movements, as well as the most salient issues for Iranians. We will also discuss the role of the Ayatollah, as well as others in Iran’s electoral system, and examine how these positions can affect the Iranian candidates running for office in the parliamentary elections, as well as Iran’s international relations.

On February 26th, 2016, Iran will be holding these elections. As mentioned, the elections are for the parliament (majlis), as well as for the Assembly of Experts. As many have pointed out, these elections are critical in the future of Iranian politics, not only domestically, but arguably also how Iran might deal with international actors in its foreign policies. It is for this reason that we need to understand what exactly is taking place in the February elections. What is interesting to note is that this is the first time in the history of the country that both will be held in the same election period (Smith, 2016). What else adds interest to these elections is the argument that some pose suggesting these elections in Iran “are signs that a realignment is underway” (Smyth, 2016) with regards to the direction of politics domestically and internationally.

The Assembly of Experts

The Assembly of Experts plays a very important part of the politics of Iran as the 88 member body has the task of selecting the next Ayatollah in Iran. Being voted in for eight years, many believe this these elections will be especially important given the age of the current Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Ayatollah himself spoke out about the importance of elections in January, saying that “I emphasize and insist that everybody should take part in our elections,” he said. “I have repeatedly said that even those who do not agree with the Islamic Republic should take part in our elections in order to safeguard the country and raise its status” (in Murdock, 2016).

Another very important body to understand is the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council has the ability to  decide who, and who cannot run in the parliamentary elections. The Guardian Council, serving as guardians of the Iranian theocracy, can decide if a candidate is contrary to the Ayatollah or Shia Islam. Human rights activists have criticized this power, arguing that they have repressed true democracy by limiting who can run in elections. These sorts of concerns are not just in the past, but rather, showed themselves leading up to the February elections in Iran. Namely, the Guardian Council banned hundreds of candidates from running in both the parliamentary elections, as well as many (four-fifths of all candidates) for the Assembly of Experts (Sharafedin, 2016). However, they Iranian Guardian Council changed course, allowing hundreds of candidates to run in the parliamentary elections. This was viewed with approval by many moderates, including former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who said of this move, “The good news for the disqualified candidates is that 25 percent of them have now been allowed to run in the election … so we will experience a competitive election in February” (Sharafedin, 2016). With regards to the percentage of candidates eligible to run in the Iranian elections, “Siamak Rahpeik, spokesman for the Central Election Supervising Committee, said on Saturday that 55 percent of all candidates had now been ruled eligible to stand and that the number of candidates able to compete for each of the 299 parliamentary seats had increased from 16 to 20” (Sharafedin, 2016). As of February 8th, 2016, they did not change their position on the Assembly of Experts candidates.

Some believe that the reason the Guardian Council (who tend to be much more conservative than the reformists they initially banned) did this has to do with what they feel might be a reduction in influence compared to more moderate voices. According to Abdel Ghafar of the Brookings Institute, there is an attempt at holding onto power, and barring candidates from running is one way to do so (Smith, 2016).

2016 Iranian General Elections, Hamed Malekpour, CC 4.0

2016 Iranian General Elections, Hamed Malekpour, CC 4.0

The Parliamentary Elections in Iran

The parliament deals with day to day affairs of a country, and like other parliaments, sets the budget for the country (Smith, 2016). Thus, whoever is able to control the parliament can use additional revenues–historically blocked by international sanctions–for their own domestic and international policies (Smith, 2016).

Both the upcoming parliamentary elections–as well as the Assembly of Experts elections–are of vital importance for the direction of Iran, particularly as it relates to the debates between the conservative and more moderate or reformist positions within the government. The divisions have risen since the recent actions on Iran’s nuclear deal. For Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it was very important that the international nuclear deal regarding Iran’s program was done before the February 2016 Parliamentary elections (Murdock, 2016). Rouhani, viewed by many as more of a moderate within the Islamic clerics, has been able to help Iran’s ailing economy by agreeing to a deal which in turn has removed sanctions on the country. Following this development, Iran began producing larger quantities of oil for the international market. With the sanctions lifted, they are better able to address inflation and other economic issues domestically. Rouhani’s supporters are hoping to ride this wave for the parliamentary elections in Iran.

Conservatives in Iran seem to understand what this might do for him and his backers in the elections, namely, given them additional support in late February (Sharafedin, 2016).

Others have wondered what effect the Saudi Arabia and Iran situation will have on voters. The two countries have increasingly become more and more upset with the actions of one another, whether directly with each other, or as it pertains to oil politics, the war in Yemen, or the war in Syria. While some think it is a possibility that this will effect the incumbents, others suggest that this won’t be as big of an issue. For example, “Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iran, said that if the diplomatic break with Saudi Arabia is used as a political tool ahead of elections, however, the results may be “irrelevant.” “Voters go to the polls mostly motivated by domestic issues and not by foreign policy issues,” he said (in Murdock, 2016).

Iranian Elections and International Relations

One of the other interests of the Iranian parliamentary elections, and the Iranian Assembly of Experts elections is related to how international actors will be watching what transpires. Iran continues to have tense international relations with many regional countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, as well as with other states such as the United States of America. Therefore, many are waiting to see what direction the Iranian voters will take. For countries such as the United States, the Obama Administration just come off a nuclear deal in which Iran, which was criticized both in Israel (by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), as well as by Republicans in Congress (and on the Presidential campaign trail). The United States leadership will be keen to see if the moderates do well, or if the Iranian hard lines prevail, as this would surely affect relations with America. Some believe that if the hard liners win, they might reverse course on the nuclear program (Smith, 2016).

Another country in which its leaders are watching is Israel. Netanyahu is obviously upset with the Iran nuclear deal. However, many IDF members feel that the deal is helpful in that it pushes Iran’s program back at least a decade to as far as 15 years. However, they are in agreement with the national leadership on the increased risk of Iran as it pertains to conventional weapons. Given that Iran has received over 100 billion dollars after the deal, there is a chance that they might spend more on military technologies (Caspit, 2016). Thus, it might make a big difference with regards to who wins the parliamentary elections, as well as the Assembly of Experts elections, given that they can not only craft the budget (parliament), but also select the future Ayatollah (Assembly of Experts).

As we can see, many believe that the 2016 Iranian elections will be a very important vote for the direction of the country. If the conservatives and hardliners do well, then one can expect continued criticism towards the United States, as well as the international Iranian nuclear deal. However, if the moderates do well enough to exclude the hardliners from any coalition in government, this might lead to a reduced voice for the hardliners, and they would have little influence against the “green movement” in civil society, as well as a reduced voice to challenge policies (Smyth, 2016). It is important to also note that some of these issues overlap between “moderates” and “hardliners” (Smyth, 2016), which adds further complexity to the Iranian 2016 elections.

Results of the 2016 Iranian Elections

As mentioned, on Friday February 26th, 2016, the Parliamentary and General Assembly elections were held in Iran. It was said that almost 33 million individuals voted in the 2016 Iranian elections. There was initial debate as to which side won the elections. One reason for this was that the Iranian state television actually first said that the hard-liners in the country gained the victory, only to change their statements, later saying that indeed the moderates had won (Erdbrink, 2016). Furthermore, as Erdbrink (2016) notes, “[p]art of the problem was that so many candidates had been eliminated by a conservative vetting council that it was hard to know what faction some of the winners identified with. There are no political parties in Iran, and the candidates all run in loose coalitions along a relatively narrow political spectrum.” He goes on to add that “[t]here is no opposition to speak of, and the range of views was sharply curtailed when the reform movement was crushed after protesting what it called the fraudulent results of the 2009 election.”

There were a number of very interesting outcomes from the 2016 Iranian Elections. Here are some of the most notable results. According to early tallies on Sunday, February 28th, “reformist candidates have taken all of the 30 seats in the capital Tehran, while Rouhani and his ally former president Hashemi Rafsanjani were leading in the  vote for the assembly of experts, which is responsible for selecting the country’s next supreme leader” (Al Jazeera, 2016). According to later reports, Rafsanjani received the most vote in the Assembly of Experts, followed by a conservative scholar and voice, Mohammad Kashani. Hassan Rouhani is believed to receive the third most votes for the Iranian Assembly of Experts (Erdbrink, 2016). In addition to the large victory for the moderates in Tehran, “[a]t the same time, the two most radical clerics were ousted from the Assembly of Experts” (Erdbrink, 2016).

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke highly of the elections, saying that “The people showed their power once again and gave more credibility and strength to their elected government” (Al Jazeera, 2016). He also spoke about his willingness with those elected to move Iran foreword (Al Jazeera, 2016). Similar comments were made by former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani was quoted as saying that “”The competition is over and the phase of unity and cooperation has arrived,” and that “”The time after elections is the time for hard work to build the country”” (Nakhoul, 2016).

It is important to understand that while the moderates did well in Tehren, and were able to insert some key voices in the Assembly of Experts, that the country is still significantly influenced by the conservatives (Al Jazeera, 2016), and thus, expecting an overhaul to the powers in the country towards more moderates is not what will happen immediately. For example, “Two leaders of the opposition Green Movement who are under house arrest, Mir Hossain Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, were supplied with ballot papers and allowed to vote Friday, according to Kalame, a website close to the movement. The move was seen as a slight relaxation of the restrictions against the reformists, who came to prominence in 2009 after a disputed election and have been in near-isolation for the past four years. But another Green Movement leader, Mehdi Karroubi, was refused the opportunity to vote, according to reports” (Nakhoul, 2016). Thus, the government has not opened up to release all political prisoners. Plus, thousands of candidates were ruled ineligible to run in the elections (Nakhoul, 2016).

Thus, instead of immediate overhaul of the Iranian political system, many Iranians are hoping that this election is just the latest step in Iran’s movement towards better conditions domestically, as well as better relations with international actors. In addition, many within the United States are also hopeful following the results of the 2016 elections in Iran. There is a belief that “[T]he results also gave some weight to President Obama’s carefully couched hopes that the nuclear deal–which was heavily criticized by his American political advisories–might introduce changes that could gradually bring Iran out of its confrontational posture with the West and, most pointedly, with the United States” (Erdbrink, 2016). 

However, as noted in a 2016 Foreign Policy article, “Ever since he defied Iran’s deep state in last month’s elections, it was only a matter of time until President Hassan Rouhani would be publicly reminded of his limitations. The moment came on the morning of March 8, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired several ballistic missiles in a military drill, displaying wanton disregard for U.N. Security Council resolutions. The missile tests confirmed two things: First, Iran’s president, despite his proven ability to manipulate domestic politics to his advantage and win over public opinion, cannot curb the activities of the country’s most powerful military force. And second, there are organs of Iran’s revolutionary state that will do whatever they can to sabotage Rouhani’s nascent rapprochement with the West.”

These domestic issues, namely, political divisions between the moderates and the hardliners within sub-groups like the revolutionary guards will continue. The hardliners, while understanding that they took major loses in the 2016 elections, are unwilling to give up control of their foreign policy positions. This is why some believe that real reform in Iran will continue to be suppressed until there is genuine changes in the governance structure of the country, beginning with the Ayatollah (Foreign Policy, 2016).

April 30th Runoff Elections in Iran

On April 30th, 2016, Iranians went to the polls to settle 68 runoff electoral seats from the earlier election. Some areas, such as Tehran, did not vote, because the elections were all settled during the first round (in late February) (Karimi & Schreck, 2016). According to reports, “The reformist and moderate list claimed 37 seats in Friday’s vote, giving them a total of 143 seats in the assembly — just two seats shy of 50 percent. They are followed by hard-liners, with 86 seats, and independents, with 61. Twenty-two hard-liners and nine independents won seats in the runoff” (Karimi & Schreck, 2016). It was said that turnout in these latest runoff elections was at 59 percent, which compared to 62 percent in February (Karimi & Schreck, 2016). These results, not only a victory for the moderates in civil society, and those who were elected, but this seems to bode well for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who himself will run for re-election next year. Plus, he now has a parliament in Iran that should be much more aligned with his interests, something that he did not have while the conservatives and hardliners were in power (Karimi & Schreck, 2016).

A Weakening of the Ayatollah in Iran?

It is quite clear that the 2016 elections in Iran has ushered in many moderates in government. The question that remains is whether the results of these elections in any way alter the greater political landscape of Iranian politics. One of the underlying questions as a result of the 2016 Iranian elections has been whether the outcomes suggest a much weaker Ayatollah. This issue was brought up by Muhammad Sahimi (2016), argues that there has been a reduction of influence that the Ayatollah has in civil society. In fact, this shift is not merely a result of the 2016 elections, but rather, this is a change that has been happening for decades.

He argues that the rise of the moderates was there in the 1980s, although the divisions between any progressives and hardliners was not as much out in the open compared to the 1997 elections of Mohammed Khatami. Khameni continues to crackdown on journalists and political dissidents in the years that followed. Then, with the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and the subsequent re-election (which was viewed as fraudulent), the rise of the progressives–through the Green Movement–has further showed his weakening support. Now, with the 2013 elections of Rouhani, the willingness to negotiate on the nuclear issue, and the 2016 Iranian elections, despite attempts to suppress moderate candidates, the reformers still did quite well (Sahimi, 2016). Now, with a reduced influence on progressives, and also less control of hardliners (as well as the Revolutionary Guards), the Ayatollah, while still the main political actor in Iran, may not be as powerful as he once was. Sahimi (2016) argues that improved ties with the United States is something that the Ayatollah not only does not want, but something that he has much less control over. Sahimi (2016) writes: “There is a fierce power struggle in Iran between those who want to open up Iran and reconcile with the rest of the world, and Khamenei and his supporters who have been frozen in the revolutionary era of 1979. Although he still has immense power, Khamenei has shrunk in stature and is merely the leader of a small minority. The West can tip the balance of the struggle in favor of the reformists and moderates by delivering on its promise of allowing large investments in that nation. It is not helpful when Secretary of State John Kerry boasts that “Iran has received only $3 billion” since the sanctions were supposedly lifted. Khamenei and the hard-liners have been using this to attack Rouhani and his supporters.”


Again, even with the discussion about the victory of the moderates, and the possible weakening influence of the Ayatollah, it would be a mistake to think that the 2016 Iranian election results have completely transformed the current Iranian political system. Many conservatives and hardliners continue to control influential aspects of the Iranian government. However, the results might not only help Rouhani build Iran’s domestic economy (Erdbrink, 2016), but it might signal some change in foreign policies. In addition, it is believed that this is a major hit against the conservatives and hardliners, who, despite their best efforts to win the elections (not only through voting, but also through banning candidates, along with limiting campaigning and public demonstrations) (Erdbrink, 2016), were unable to do so. With an ever-changing voter landscape-with more and more vocal middle class who is speaking against the policies and positions of the hardliners (Erdbrink, 2016), some believe that this will continue to concern the group, who may continue to have a difficult time attracting numerous supports needed to win elections.  Plus, with more and more moderates, the tide seems to be shifting for the conservative clerics and hardliners in Iran. It is important to note that in these Iranian elections, women won more seats (at 17) than clerics (16) (Yahoo News, 2016). 

However, while this is very good for the moderates and progressives, one final point to keep an eye out for (as it relates to the Iranian elections and Iranian politics in general) will be the positions of the Ayatollah Khamenei. Not only did some say that given his age and health, that these votes may in fact shape who will be the next Ayatollah, but the fact that Khamenei accepted these moderates, and the results, is quite telling. It is important to keep in mind that he was largely responsible for the Iranian nuclear deal (Erdbrink, 2016), and that, given his overriding veto power within the state, he alone has the authority to alter the political landscape in Iran. However, for now, it seems that he is going along with the direction of the country. 

2016 Iranian Election References

Al Jazeera (2016). Iran: Rouhani praises ‘people power’ after elections. Al Jazeera. 28 February 2016. Avaialable Online: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/02/iran-president-hassan-rouhani-happy-election-gains-160228013356151.html

Caspit, B. (2016). Why Israel is keeping a close eye on Iran’s parliamentary elections. Al-Monitor. January 18, 2016. Available Online: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/01/israel-iran-nuke-10-years-obama-experts-election-parliament.html#

Erdbrink, T. (2016). Iran Moderates Make Big Gains in 2 Elections. New York Times. March 1, 2016.

Foreign Policy (2016). Rouhani’s Moment of Truth: Foreign Policy, March 11, 2016. Available Online: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/11/rouhanis-moment-of-truth/ 

Karimi, N. & Schreck, A. (2016). Iran’s moderates get most parliament seats after runoff. April 30th, 2016. Yahoo News. Available Online: https://www.yahoo.com/news/iran-state-media-moderate-reformist-bloc-wins-more-061506243.html

Murdock, H. (2016). Iran Reformists Seek Electoral Gains After Nuclear Deal. VOA News. January 15, 2016. Available Online: http://www.voanews.com/content/iran-reformist-seeks-electoral-gains-after-nuclear-deal/3147708.html

Nakhoul, S. (2016). Iran’s pragmatic Rouhani cheers election wins, says government stronger. Reuters. Sunday February 28, 2016. Available Online: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-election-vote-idUSKCN0VZ0E7

Sahimi, M. (2016). Iran’s Incredible Shrinking Ayatollah. The National Interest. May 8, 2016. Available Online: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/irans-incredible-shrinking-ayatollah-16089?page=4 

Sharafedin, B. (2016). Hundreds more candidates allowed to contest Iranian election. Reuters, in Yahoo News. February 6, 2016. Available Online: http://news.yahoo.com/hundreds-more-candidates-allowed-contest-iran-election-170007632.html

Smith, E. (2016). Iran elections and why we should care. CNN, January 22nd, 2016. Available Online: http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/22/middleeast/iran-elections/

Smyth, G. (2015). A realignment of Iran’s political factions underway as elections loom. The Guardian. Friday 11 December 2015. Available Online: http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2015/dec/11/realignment-irans-political-factions-before-2017-elections

Yahoo News (2016). Iran’s new parliament has more women than clerics. Yahoo News; AFP; May 1, 2016. Available Online: https://www.yahoo.com/news/irans-parliament-more-women-clerics-085543616.html 

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