Iranian Elections and Politics 2006

On 15 December, Iranians will go to the polls to elect members of their local councils and the Assembly of Experts. These elections will not lead to visible changes in the Iranian regime; however, they provide important information about the direction of Iranian politics.

Khatami, Karrubi, Rowhani, Rafsanjani, Ghalibaf, Ahmadinejad, Mesbah-Yazdi

The Assembly of Experts is important for one reason: it selects the Supreme Leader, for life, from among its members.

This election won’t be very interesting, since competition has been eliminated by the vetting of candidates by the Guardian Council (the un-elected 12-member supreme legislative body).

Public participation in the ballot has historically been very low – last time under 10%. With the decision to hold both this election and the local council elections concurrently, the government hopes to boost voter-turnout.

The local council election is different. Those elected have access to real money, and in the case of the Tehran City Council, significant amounts of it.

It should be remembered that Ahmadinejad and friends emerged onto the political scene in 2003 after winning the Tehran municipal elections. It was from that influential position that Ahmadinejad launched his successful bid for the presidency in 2005.

The Political Landscape

Political parties and groups abound in Iran, and trying to understand them can be a real headache.

It’s easier to think of politics in Iran in terms of movements and personalities. Parties have very little grassroots support and therefore tell us little .

The two main movements or political camps in Iran are the Conservatives (part of who now refer to themselves as Principlists) and the Reformists.

The divide, ultimately, is about democratic representation in Iranian politics. The Reformists want more – through greater parliamentary power and a freer press, while the Conservatives fear that these things will lead to greater foreign influence in Iran and the dissolution of the ideals of the Revolution.

Politicians may also have other priorities, such as an inclination towards free-market economic models or support for social conservatism. However, there is no doubt that this overriding division – between Reformists and Conservatives – has shaped Iranian politics for the past decade.

1997 and the Reformists

Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s only Reformist president, was elected by a landslide in 1997. Despite short-term successes by the Reformists in liberalising the media and attempting to engage internationally, the Conservative elements in the regime, in particular the Supreme Leader Khamanei and the Guardian Council, blocked many of the reforms.

As the popular frustration at the lack of progress on reform combined with a perceived weakness in Khatami to really push for change, Reformists and the voters who supported them became disaffected with the political process.

July 1999 saw the largest public unrest since the Revolution, as thousands of students demonstrated for democratic reform. Following days of instability and tension, Khatami was under pressure from both the students pushing for democratisation and the regime’s Conservatives who threatened radical counter-measures to crush the dissent. Khatami’s ultimate decision to appeal for calm and stand against the students – who had been among his strongest supporters – was seen by many as a betrayal.

Khatami was re-elected in 2001 with a diminished mandate. The Reformists continued to shed supporters, as voters blamed them for their inability to push for real change. Khatami claimed that his hands were tied by the Conservative establishment; his critics charged that he could have done more, using his unique position as President.

Either way, the Reform movement was on its last legs in 2003 when many voters didn’t bother to turn up to the local elections and Ahmadinejad and his ideological allies were voted into the Tehran City Council. These Conservatives went on to make large gains in the parliamentary election a year later, and win the presidential election a year after that.

Ahmadinejad and the Principlists

The 2005 Presidential election marked the formal end to the Reformist administration.

Iran today is under the administration of a new political grouping. This branch of the Conservative movement, which count Ahmadinejad among their number, are young, radical and pious.

Referring to themselves as “Principlists”, in reference to their adherence to the ideals of both Islam and the Revolution, they see many problems in today’s Iran. However, their prescription for these ailments is a return to Revolutionary principles, not a reform away from them, as Khatami and the Reformists were advocating.

Ahmadinejad and his allies comprise what could be referred to as the ‘foot soldiers’ of the Revolution. Veterans of the Basij (the government’s youth militia) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (the elite ideological wing of the military), these Principlists spent much of their adult life fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. They have invested a great deal in the “success” of the Revolution.

What makes these Principlists fundamentally different to other Conservatives is the class dimension of their discourse. Principlists in general are not members of the clerical establishment – Ahmadinejad was the first non-cleric to become President – rather they hail from the religious working class.

Although foreign media emphasise the elements of Ahmadinejad’s speeches that refer to Israel or the Iranian nuclear programme, it is his economic agenda that makes him popular among certain parts of Iranian society.

Ahmadinejad’s electoral pledge to “bring the oil revenue to the people’s tables” is not only a promise to the rural poor that they have not been forgotten; it is a promise to address the corruption responsible for Iran’s squandered natural resources. The Principlists are well aware that this corruption extends to parts of the traditional Conservative establishment.

So while the Principlists’ adherence to the ideals of the Revolution and the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader puts them at odds with the Reformists, it is their revulsion of economic corruption that pits them against members of their own Conservative movement.

Rafsanjani: a dangerous enemy to have

Nowhere is this loathing stronger than towards Rafsanjani, whom Principlists see as the epitome of clerical excess and corruption.

Rafsanjani’s wealth is a source of much political discussion in Iran, and in many shared taxis or bread queues you can hear people talking about his dubious wealth.

Whether any of it is true is hard to say in the opaque Iranian economic system; however, it is hard to find any Iranian who is not convinced of Rafsanjani’s shady millions (or indeed billions).

A former president of Iran (1989-1997), Rafsanjani is the current deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts and the head of the powerful Expediency Council, a body that both mediates between the Guardian Council and Parliament and also advises the Supreme Leader. He is close to the current Supreme Leader Khamanei and was a trusted aide to Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, who appointed him commander-in-chief of the armed forces in the last year of the Iran-Iraq war. Many observers believe he is a strong candidate to succeed Khamanei as the Supreme Leader.

In short, Rafsanjani is an extremely powerful man.

As such, these hostile Principlist sentiments would have meant little to Rafsanjani before August 2005. However, when Ahmadinejad defeated him in a head-to-head runoff to become president, the animosity could no longer be ignored. The humiliation of losing to the little-known Tehran Mayor in his shabby coat must have shaken this political behemoth.

Over the past year, signs of this rivalry between the Principlists and Rafsanjani have become increasingly apparent. Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazi, the arch-fundamentalist cleric who is seen as the ideological mentor to Ahmadinejad and his allies, has been making his hostility known to Rafsanjani.

In June, at a major speech in Qom, the heartland of the country’s clergy, Rafsanjani was heckled by Mesbah-Yazdi’s students, who accused him of being an “appeaser” and a “counter-revolutionary”. Rafsanjani, visibly shocked by this public affront by protesters in clerical robes, ended his televised speech early and cancelled subsequent appearances and interviews.

This animosity towards Rafsanjani was further confirmed when an electoral list for the Assembly of Experts was released under the name of “the friends of Mesbah-Yazdi” which did not include Rafsanjani or his powerful ally Rohani among their candidates. Both these personalities are on the Conservative and Reformist lists, which is more evidence of the Principlists separating themselves from the main Conservative bloc.

Finally, and most relevant to the upcoming election this Friday, Principlists stand divided in the Tehran City Council elections, once again because of Rafsanjani.

The current Tehran Mayor Ghalibaf, who considers himself a Principlist, has been shunned by the more extreme elements of the group who criticise him, among other things, for appointing Rafsanjani’s son as Manager of the Tehran Metro. This division among the Principlists leaves them vulnerable ahead of the local elections and has dominated the Iranian media in the run-up to Friday’s ballot.

Reformists court their new friend?

Ever since Rafsanjani’s public humiliation in Qom, Reformists have been adapting to the possibility of adopting this new enemy of the Principlists, or the extreme Conservatives, as one of their own.

Seen until very recently as a regime stalwart and a Conservative, Rafsanjani has been an awkward ally for some Reformists.

However, Reformists are using defence of Rafsanjani as a means to attack their Principlist enemies. By criticising Rafsanjani’s critics, Reformists are able to vent their frustration with the current administration while hiding behind Rafsanjani’s position.

The pro-government press finds it harder to attack the Reformists if it means criticising Rafsanjani in the process. It is still a dangerous game for anyone to attack the powerful man publicly.

Rafsanjani’s conversion to a Reformist figure is still very much in process. However, his endorsement of the Reformist coalition in the local elections is a major step in that direction.

What this means for Iranian politics is still hard to say; however, this rift between the Principlists and traditional Conservatives, including Rafsanjani, could shape Iranian politics for years to come.

Unity, Disunity and Friday’s Election

The Reformists, unlike the Principlists, have achieved unity for the first time in years, with all the Reformist groups running a joint list. The minor exception is Karrubi, the former parliamentary speaker, who while technically running a separate list for his National Trust Party, has been persuaded by Khatami to list identical candidates to the official Reformist Coalition.

Faced with this unprecedented Reformist unity, the Principlist bickering could damage both their – and Ahmadinejad’s – standing in government. A significant defeat in Friday’s election would dent the popular support that Ahmadinejad has been claiming since the 2005 presidential election.

However, this prediction relies on one unpredictable variable: voter turnout.

If Iranians choose to boycott the ballot-box, something they have been doing increasingly since Khatami’s first election in 1997, then the Principlists can expect to win again.

If Iranians decide that these elections do provide a worthwhile opportunity for change, however slight, then they may vote in larger numbers, almost certainly for the Reformists.

So, in summary, what to look out for (in order of interest):

  • Who wins the Tehran City Council?
  • What is the voter turnout?
  • What are the relative Reformist/Principlist gains?
  • What the various individuals and groups say in the heat of the election, and
  • What is the position of the various groups on the results?

While the Western media seems preoccupied with Tehran’s “Holocaust Conference” – which garners little interest among people in Iran – if you want to know what’s happening in the generally opaque world of Iranian politics, Friday will provide a rare opportunity to find out.


I appreciate this article is going to be a oversimplification for some, since Iranian politics is not exactly straightforward. However, I was trying to explain to those with little knowledge of Iranian politics that there is movement beneath Iran’s authoritarian veneer. There are forces for change, even if all the actors look disturbingly similar to the foreign eye. Go ahead and ask any questions and I’ll try and answer them. I’m no expert, but with the depressingly low level of public knowledge about the politics of such a “high priority” country, I think that anything can help.

2 Responses to “Iranian Elections and Politics 2006”

  • Great article I really appreciated its clarity

  • Official results are in today. Reuters produced a good summary:

    TEHRAN, Dec 21 (Reuters) – Final results in the election race for Tehran City Council on Thursday showed allies of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had gained the fewest seats among the main political groups.

    Analysts see the results, which confirm preliminary counts, as a political setback for the anti-Western president and a possible sign of public frustration with Iran’s increasing diplomatic isolation and economic woes.

    Although Friday’s elections for local councils and a powerful clerical body known as the Assembly of Experts will not have a direct impact on policy, they may encourage moderate voices to challenge the president more forcefully.
    “What both political wings of the country have learned from the election is that the people prefer moderate policies to populist slogans and strategies,” the pro-reform Etemad-e Melli daily wrote on Thursday.

    The elections were a success for more traditional conservatives who have expressed alarm at Ahmadinejad’s confrontational international stance and free-spending policies.

    In the Tehran race, moderate conservative backers of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a bitter rival of Ahmadinejad, secured a majority of the council’s 15 seats, the official IRNA news agency said.

    Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guards commander who ran against Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential elections, is now almost certain to remain mayor of the capital, a position which Ahmadinejad used as a springboard to the presidency.

    Reformists, swept from elected positions in a series of votes since 2003, regained a toehold on power in Friday’s polls. In Tehran reformists took four seats on the council where they previously held none.

    A political group closely identified with the president, calling itself the Pleasant Scent of Service, took just three Tehran seats. The highest placed vote getter on their list was a sister of Ahmadinejad in eighth place.

    Ahmadinejad has not commented on the election results, preferring to emphasise voter turnout of above 60 percent, well above previous similar elections.

    Reformists fared well in provincial races, claiming to have taken almost 40 percent of council seats outside Tehran. Women also did better than in previous years, forming almost half of those elected in several city councils.

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