Predicting Iranian politics is usually a fool’s game. After all, few observers have accurately forecast the dramatic twists and turns of contemporary Iranian history – neither the 1979 upheaval that transformed a pro-American monarchy into a truculent anti-Western theocracy, nor the rebirth of the revolution’s leftist radicals as moderate reformers fifteen years later, nor the subsequent rise of a new generation of hard-liners, as epitomized by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And even fewer outside Iran predicted the response to Iran’s last experience with the ballot box, in 2009, when the dubious declaration of Ahmadinejad’s overwhelming reelection prompted the first sustained protests and opposition movement since the revolution itself.
And yet, as Iranians go to the polls to elect the ninth parliament since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the immediate outcome is clear even before the polling places have closed. Announced turnout levels will prove respectable, probably 60 percent, although whether participation rates are rigged or real is impossible to ascertain, without independent monitors or even a well-functioning print or social media. Irrespective of the election results, Tehran will trumpet the vote as a resounding affirmation of its continuing popular mandate and as “another slap in the face,” to borrow supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s charming rhetoric, to the United States and the other Western governments that have imposed severe sanctions on Iran.
Beyond the official rhetoric, the elections will not alter basic dynamics of Iran’s domestic politics, in particular the deepening estrangement among a political elite dominated by a narrow but discordant array of hardliners, or the fundamental schism between its leadership and its disproportionately young population. Nor will it have any direct impact on decision-making over the most vital issues of Iranian domestic or foreign policy today – specifically, the regime’s nuclear ambitions, the crushing economic burdens faced by its population thanks to increasingly severe sanctions, and the possibility that tensions may escalate into direct military conflict between Iran and Israel or the United States.
To state the obvious, the Islamic Republic is not a democratic state, where voting serves as a mechanism for influencing policy outcomes and where patterns of political participation and outcomes offer insight into public preferences. In Iran, particularly after the charade of the 2009 results and the turmoil on the streets and in the halls of power that followed in its wake, elections inevitably serve a more constrained function in facilitating the shadow-boxing among the elite and offering a mere veneer of popular consent.
However, this deeply cynical interpretation of Iran’s system and the likely results of the parliamentary elections should not imply that the vote is of little interest or value. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The elections matter profoundly, not for the headlines that dominate the current news cycle but for the long-term future of the country. The perpetuation of the electoral process even under the shadow of heavy-handed government manipulation and repression is a testament to the abiding legacy of Iran’s historical struggle for representative institutions and an investment in its democratic future.
For well over a century, the Majlis has played an outsized role in Iran’s ever-changing political narrative. Its establishment in 1906 enshrined the basic tenets of democracy, albeit mainly in principle and only episodically in practice: that government should be based on written laws and that it should be responsible to its citizenry through representative institutions. The retention of the parliament after the 1979 Revolution reflected the suspicion of centralized authority among the motley coalition that unseated the monarchy. Rebranded as the Islamic Majlis, the Iranian parliament has served as the focal point for elite intrigue as well as popular aspirations for accountability throughout the past three decades.
The election process in Iran has never been fully free or fair, and the conditions today are more hostile than at perhaps any moment in the post-revolutionary period toward an open competition among a wide array of interests and ideologies. Still, the parliament remains a potent force, and despite the meticulous culling of any prospective candidates who might dissent from the ruling system, it has never functioned as a Potemkin body. Throughout the history of the Islamic Republic, its members have routinely challenged Iran’s power brokers and their preferred policies. Even the charismatic founder of the revolutionary state, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, contended with constant recurrent defiance of his mandates from successive unruly parliaments. Today, the Majlis remains the only bulwark against the wholesale consolidation of power under the aegis of Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Moreover, even within the confines of official restrictions, past parliamentary ballots have served as critical junctures, helping to catalyze the development of new political forces within Iran’s fractious elite. In 1992, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s attempt to eliminate leftist MPs who favored a state-dominated economy inadvertently gave rise to powerful movement for political and social reform in Iran. Eight years later, the parliamentary campaign in February 2000 represented the reformist apex and incited a fierce program of reprisals by conservatives. Four years later, in large part due to this conservative onslaught, parliamentary elections signaled the fading relevance of reform and the ascendance of a new generation of hard-liners. And throughout this time, the parliament remained the focal point of day-to-day politics in Iran with battles over budgets, oversight, and authority between each of the bodies and the office of the presidency.
This latest round of elections is unlikely to generate a political tidal wave in Iran. The results of the latest ballot may only be of limited immediate value to the legions of analysts and journalists outside Iran who hope to divine their implications for the nuclear politics and the ever-present struggle for predominance among Iran’s leadership factions and the views of a population that is feeling the fierce sudden impact of the financial sanctions imposed on the regime. Still, as the first opportunity to articulate their political views since the 2009 turmoil, today’s ballot is a vital milestone.
For many Iranians, the very act of voting remains a precious reminder of their long-held sense of political entitlement and their struggle since the 19th century to exert some form of accountability over their leadership. And for that small segment of the political elite that is permitted to participate in the process, the act of campaigning and the responsibilities of representation have a way of creating an investment in political competition, the notion of checks and balances, and the primacy of representative institutions. In this sense, although the immediate outcome of the parliamentary elections is not seriously in question, the long-term implications for Iran’s constantly evolving politics remain to be seen.
[The protests constitute] one of the most serious crises Iran has faced in the past 25 years... We now see that Iranians are willing to take profound risks to challenge the regime directly in a way we have not seen in years.