March 4, 2024

IntelBrief: Elections Call Iranian Regime’s Support into Question

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Voters boycotted or ignored Iran’s March 1 Majles (parliamentary) and senior clerical council elections as a protest against regime repression and its exclusion of reformist candidates.
  • Many Iranians oppose the government’s intervention throughout the region as a misuse of scarce economic resources and potentially provoking war with the United States.
  • The candidate field for the Majles election virtually ensures the body will remain a rubber stamp and cheerleader for Iranian leadership policies.
  • The election for the regime’s senior oversight council, the Assembly of Experts, might set the stage for President Ibrahim Raisi to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i as Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Iranian voters were urged by the country’s leadership to go to the polls March 1 to elect the 290 seats of the Majles (parliament), and members of an 88-seat clerical council, the Assembly of Experts. The main mission of the Assembly is to select a Supreme Leader upon the death or incapacitation of the incumbent. However, the voting exposed widespread resentment of the regime’s domestic and foreign policies because independent news organizations assessed turnout at unprecedented low level of 27%, before Iranian leaders extended voting hours to nudge turnout to approximately 41%, according to state media. Still, the participation was below that of the last Majles elections in 2020 - the last year of the relatively moderate president Hassan Rouhani’s two terms. And even the 42% turnout registered in 2020 disappointed many senior regime leaders, who have always exhorted Iranians to go the polls in large numbers as a symbol of support for Iran’s defiant policies aimed at undermining U.S. domination of regional and global politics and security affairs. During the voting Friday, social media was replete with posts, mainly from regime critics, of polling places around the country receiving no voters whatsoever. Meanwhile, official state media broadcast videos of the few stations, mainly in Tehran, experiencing significant voter participation. Notably, former two-term reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who governed from 1997 to 2005, did not vote at all – defying an unspoken rule that all former leaders must show up at the polls on election day.

Experts attributed the low level of participation to still simmering opposition to the regime’s crackdown against the late 2022 – early 2023 Women, Life, Freedom protests sparked by the death in custody of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for improper head covering. Many Iranians also recoiled at the widespread exclusion of moderate and reformist candidates from running, leaving voters with little choice other than to support hardline supporters of the regime – or not to vote at all. Polling data has shown that - after several relatively competitive Majles and presidential elections during 1997-2017 – many Iranians lost confidence in the political process after the regime seemingly fixed the 2021 presidential election for Khamenei’s ally from the city of Mashhad, Ibrahim Raisi. Other Iranians have focused on the regime’s use of the country’s sanctions-limited economic resources to support regional armed movements such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen, and Iraq-based militias rather than improve the living standards of the population. Many Iranians are reportedly fearful that the regime’s response to the October 7 Hamas attack – unleashing its so-called “Axis of Resistance” proxies to attack U.S. forces and commercial shipping in the Red Sea – has brought Iran to the brink of direct warfare with the United States.

There is little prospect that the Majles elections will bring about changes in Iranian policy. The parliament is one of the Islamic Republic’s three main branches of government, but even at times when moderates and reformists held a majority within it, the body never attained more than a modest role in setting policy. The Majles has always been excluded from any national security and foreign relations decision-making role. Its influence has declined even further in recent years as regime limitations on candidate selection in the past several Majles elections have transformed the body into a hardliner-dominated rubber stamp for policies set by the Supreme Leader and the President, with little debate or deliberation. Results of the Friday voting show hardliners retaining their control as expected, although reports indicate some younger hardliners who have criticized more established leaders fared well, particularly in Tehran, and might constitute a powerful bloc in the next Majles. Yet, it is not clear that there will be sufficient support for a challenger to Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf to be Speaker. Qalibaf is a longtime stalwart of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), at one time heading its Air Force, which controls Iran’s missile arsenal, before serving as Tehran mayor during 2005 – 2017. A confidant of both Supreme Leader Khamene’i and President Raisi, he has been Speaker since 2020.  In late December, Qalibaf pointedly warned the United States and Israel against further attacks, such as the Israeli strike that killed the senior IRGC commander in Syria, Seyed Razi Mousavi. Qalibaf stated: "I should emphasize that any act of aggression against the commanders or the physical infrastructures of the [axis of] resistance (front) will cost the US and the Zionists dearly."

The more closely watched results will be those for the Assembly of Experts, the 88-member body of clerics elected every eight years and meeting only twice yearly. It is constitutionally charged with choosing a successor after Khamene’i leaves the scene and, at least in principle, although not in practice, “overseeing” the work of the incumbent Supreme Leader. Khamene’i will be 85 years of age this summer, and the Assembly elected Friday is likely to be the one that will have to decide on his successor. In an apparent effort to elevate President Raisi’s chances to succeed him, the Supreme Leader reportedly persuaded several of the most elderly Assembly members not to run for re-election, including the current Chairman, Ahmad Jannati, age 97. Their sidelining increases Raisi’s chances to become Chairman when the newly-elected Assembly convenes – a perch from which Raisi might be able to steer his own selection as successor to the Supreme Leader. (He is constitutionally able to serve as President and as Assembly of Experts Chaiman concurrently.) To ensure Raisi retained his seat in the Assembly, he ran in a small rural district and not in Tehran, facing no real competition, and reportedly garnered 82% of the Friday vote. Perhaps even more significantly, the regime used its candidate screening machinery to deny the Assembly candidacy of former two-term President Hassan Rouhani – considered a potential rival to succeed Khamene’i. His candidacy was vetoed, even though he has served nearly two decades in the Assembly, on the grounds that he is too willing to compromise with the United States and the West and insufficiently committed to supporting Iran’s Axis of Resistance. It was during his presidency that Iran agreed to the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) that then-President Trump later abrogated in 2018. In the last Assembly elections in 2016, Rouhani supporters succeeded in defeating several senior hardliners for re-election to the body – an outcome Khamene’i and his allies did not want repeated in 2024.

The Assembly of Experts elections will not clarify whether the Supreme Leader seeks to position his second eldest son and de-facto chief-of-staff, Mojtaba Khamene’i – and not Raisi – to succeed him. Some Iranian sources indicate the elder Khamene’i sees his son as the only figure certain to carry forward his legacy and continue all his policies. But, many senior regime figures oppose the concept of a hereditary leadership. And, Mojtaba’s religious credentials are unexceptional, although the clerical standing of his chief competitor, Raisi, is not markedly superior. However, as president, Raisi has the political experience the Iranian constitution stipulates as a requirement for a Supreme Leader, whereas Mojtaba does not. It is also likely his father’s influence over the Assembly of Experts will not survive his passing, and members of the Assembly will consider a wide range of factors other than Khamene’i’s wishes in selecting a new Supreme Leader. If the Assembly cannot immediately decide on a successor, the constitution allows the Assembly to appoint a leadership council of three to five members to rule until the body can forge a consensus on a single new Leader. The Friday elections appear to have reaffirmed that Iranian policies will not change in the foreseeable future, but the vote demonstrated the Iranian public is broadly dissatisfied with the course the Islamic Republic is taking.