How the Guardian Council could shape Iran’s 2016 Parliamentary election

In the glare of the nuclear deal between Iran and global powers, a dispute between President Hassan Rouhani and senior conservative figures, which may have a lasting impact on Iran’s upcoming February 2016 Majlis (parliamentary) elections, has gone largely unnoticed. This dispute centers on how much power the Council of Guardians of the Constitution, commonly referred to as the Guardian Council, has in vetting electoral candidates. If history is a guide, the Council may engage in mass disqualifications of candidates and eliminate entire political groups in the 2016 elections. This would not only affect President Rouhani’s ability to deliver on his agenda, but also limit Iranian voters’ options.





The Guardian Council plays a mix of quasi-judicial and -legislative roles in Iran’s political system, including vetting presidential, parliamentary and Assembly of Experts candidates and reviewing legislation to ensure compliance with the constitution and Islamic law. The dispute over the Council’s role began this past August 19th when President Rouhani fired the first shot in a speech calling on the body to play a purely supervisory role in elections, saying that it is an “eye” that “cannot do the job of a hand”. Highlighting the Council’s practice of disqualifying entire political groups in recent years, Rouhani said that all legal groups should be respected and individual candidates judged on their merits rather than political affiliations.

On September 1st, Revolutionary Guard commander General Mohammad-Ali Jafari, a senior conservative figure, fired back at President Rouhani, saying that such speeches enabled foreign “infiltration” of Iran and weakened “effective bases of the revolution like the Guardian Council.” Referencing the Council’s approval of Rouhani to run for president, Jafari remarked that those who had been approved by the body: “must have more well-thought out words…and not permit questioning of the revolutionary beliefs and ideals of society to gain the consent of the dominating regime and Great Satan [United States].” Iran’s Chief Justice Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani also chimed in, saying it was clear the Council is empowered to play a proactive role in vetting candidates and called on the body to be “firm”.

On September 9th, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful figure in Iran’s system, finally intervened. In a veiled reprimand of President Rouhani, he criticised anyone questioning the fairness of Iran’s elections, asserting that “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.” He seemed to decisively settle the matter in favour of the Council and conservatives:

“The Guardian Council is the seeing eye of the regime. All over the world something like this exists. It may be called something different elsewhere, but here it is the Guardian Council. They are careful to see whether a person who enters elections and becomes an electoral candidate is qualified, and must approve their qualification. If they see there has been shortcomings and an unqualified person has entered, they block him. This is their right…”



The controversy over the Guardian Council’s role in vetting candidates dates back to the early-1990s when it went from a supervisory to proactive role. Before the 1992 parliamentary election, the Council was limited to supervising the review of electoral candidates by a quartet of state entities composed of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Ministry of Justice, police, and the Civil Registration Organisation. If the information received from these entities indicated to the Council that a candidate was against the Islamic Republic or the Supreme Leader, among other factors, the candidate could be found to lack qualification to run in an election.

Beginning with the 1992 election, the first following the ascension of Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council has played a more proactive role in vetting candidates. Even if the above state entities do not submit information indicating that a candidate lacks qualification, the Guardian Council is empowered to proactively make its own determination about a candidate’s qualification. This crucial change has meant that candidates, especially reformists candidates (and since the 2004 parliamentary elections, even incumbents) have been disqualified en masse on often vague or arbitrary grounds.

The most high profile Iranian to be disqualified by the Council is Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who was prevented from running in the 2013 presidential election on the grounds of his old age. Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s disqualification came as a shock given his status as an extremely influential former president and speaker of parliament. This aggressive vetting, which at times has prevented entire political groups from running in elections, persists today and has been a cornerstone of continued conservative dominance of Iran’s parliament.



Worryingly, the Guardian Council’s Chairman Ayatollah Ahmad Janati may have opened the door to mass disqualifications in the 2016 election when he warned last year about infiltration of Iran’s parliament and Assembly of Experts, remaking that “the election of the Assembly of Experts are linked to the foundation of the revolution and right now some are planning to take the Assembly of Experts and the Islamic Consultative Assembly [parliament] to pursue their corrupt goals through this means.” He said that some of these efforts would come from within the system, arguing that, “they have money, and some of them are in the centers of power.”

This concern notably applies to reformists who, prior to the controversial 2009 presidential elections, had often found themselves under the Guardian Council’s ax. Following the reformist-led 2009 post-election demonstrations and its subsequent suppression, potential 2012 parliamentary election reformist candidates were either in prison, exile, or opted to boycott the vote. After largely ending their boycott of elections in the 2013 presidential election, it remains to be seen whether the Council will allow reformists to participate this time around.

With a nuclear victory in hand, Iran’s president must now look to fulfill promises made in the 2013 presidential election campaign to expand domestic social and political freedoms. However, his efforts have been obstructed by Iran’s conservative parliament. If the Guardian Council disqualifies moderate candidates and groups en masse, the prospects for advancing this domestic agenda will be thrown in danger.

Mass disqualifications by the Guardian Council would also severely limit Iranian voters’ options. Most candidates who are in anyway opposed to Iran’s current political system are usually barred from participating in national elections, meaning that Iranians have a narrow set of options at the polling booth. The elimination of moderate candidates would narrow this choice even further, potentially compromising voter turnout and the legitimacy of the elections.