Iran holds elections in four year cycles for president, parliament, the Assembly of Experts, and local councils.  Its most recent parliamentary elections were in February 2020 and its next presidential election will be held in June 2021. 

As Yasmin Alem notes, Iran holds elections for three main reasons:

  • To manage competition among elite factions.  Iran’s politics is highly volatile, and holding elections is an organized forum through which to decide and signal who is up and who is down.
  • To gauge public sentiment.  While Iran’s elections do not fully reflect the popular will, they have in the past provided a way for the public to register their opinion on key matters – whether voting for reformists in the late 1990s or by not voting at all today.
  • To demonstrate public support for the regime.  Iran’s leadership consistently touts high turnout figures as a demonstration that Iran’s public supports its political system the revolution.  Their audience is both international and domestic, seeking to limit public discontent by showing that the majority of people favor the status quo.

Iranian officials cite its electoral process as evidence that it is a democracy, but Iranian elections are unique in two ways:

  • An unelected body – the Council of Guardians – disqualifies candidates from running for office if they do not meet certain criteria; and
  • While political parties are legal in Iran, parties are not the way it organizes political activity.

A note on political parties:  this is more a matter of tradition and practice than the law, but Iran doesn’t really have parties, it has factions.  There are currently three or four broad categories of politicians in Iran.  On the left are the reformists, who held the presidency and parliament in the late 1990s under former President Ali Khatami, but hold little formal power today.  In the center are traditional conservatives like Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, and on the right are more hard-line conservatives called “Principlists,” represented by Ebrahim Raisi, who ran for president against Rouhani in 2017 and is currently head of Iran’s judiciary.  Finally, some people describe a moderate or pragmatic faction – consisting of politicians such as President Hassan Rouhani – that, while generally espousing conservative values, also believe in balancing those values with the need to gain public support and avoid international isolation.

These are general and debated terms, not hard and fast affiliations.  Factions often publish lists of candidates they support prior to elections, but some individuals appear on more than one faction’s list.  Having factions rather than parties allows politicians flexibility in forming political coalitions, but also means there are unclear ideological distinctions between groups. 

Elections themselves are managed by the government in two ways: the Council of Guardians and the election administration itself.

First, the Council of Guardians has formal approval over which candidates are allowed to run for office – a process called vetting.  It disqualifies candidates who do not demonstrate sufficient loyalty to the Constitution, Islam, or the principle of velayat-e faqih (the rule of the Supreme Leader).  The number of disqualifications has varied, but has increased in recent elections and used exclude larger numbers of reformist and moderate candidates.  The Council of Guardians has rejected female candidates from running for president, but not parliament and did not allow a reformist candidate to run for president in the past two elections.

The central government controls the management of the elections themselves. While Iran traditionally manages its elections by limiting candidates, not falsifying actual results, former President Ahmadinejad’s placement of loyalists on local election commissions allowed him to post unusually high turnouts and vote counts in his favor in the fraudulent 2009 election.

The result is that today, Iran has a parliament dominated by conservative MPs.  In the previous parliament, the pro-Rouhani Hope Faction had 102 MPs; only seven members of that list are in the new parliament.  Fewer than 20% of members of the current parliament held their seat a year ago.  Turnout in the most recent election hit a record low, a blow to a regime that emphasizes voting in elections as an endorsement of the political system.

Iran is now gearing up for its next presidential elections in June 2021.  Rouhani is term limited and so we will have a fully new slate of candidates.  While speculation about who will run has begun, Iran’s campaign period is much shorter than the United States.  Serious candidates will deny they are interested until a few months before the election, when the vetting process will begin.  So we will have to wait to see who is interested in formally leading Iran for the next four years.