Iranians are voting on Friday in an election that’s seen as a critical, though not entirely fair, referendum on President Hassan Rouhani, who agreed to a historic deal on the country’s nuclear program last year.
At stake are 290 seats in the Majlis, as the Iranian Parliament is known, which is currently dominated by Rouhani’s conservative opponents. The president would like to see more of his allies in parliament, which would allow him to implement more of his reformist economic agenda ahead of presidential elections next year. There are some major roadblocks, though.
For one thing, the unelected Guardian Council, stacked with allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gets to decide who’s allowed to run. While more than 12,000 people threw their hat in the ring, 60 percent of them, mostly reformists, were culled by the council. Rather than formal parties, Iranians generally vote based on lists of like-minded candidates headed by popular politicians. Thanks to the council's vetting, many regions of the country will have only conservative candidates to choose from. In all, 6,200 candidates are running.
Iranians are also voting for members of the 88-member “Assembly of Experts,” the body of theologians that will select the next Supreme Leader if the 76-year-old Khamenei dies or can no longer perform his duties. The Guardian Council was even less lenient in that election, allowing only 161 candidates out of the more than 800 who applied. Those disqualified included Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, a reformist cleric known for communicating with his followers via Instagram.
Official campaigning has only been allowed for the past week, and even during that time, it’s been highly restricted. Candidates can’t make speeches in the street, use outside loudspeakers, wave placards at rallies, or hang posters larger than 6x8 inches. Much of the campaigning this time around has been taking place on social media. Facebook and Twitter have been blocked in Iran since the Green Revolution protests of 2009, but many Iranians have ways to access them and prominent politicians use them. (Facebook-owned Instagram is still generally accessible.)
Hard-liners have sought to portray Rouhani and his allies as puppets of Western governments. Khamenei himself darkly hinted on Wednesday of a U.S.-led plot to “infiltrate” the country following the nuclear deal. Despite this, polls following the conclusion of the deal last summer showed that a majority of Iranians supported it and believed it would improve the country’s economic fortunes. About 60 percent had a positive view of Rouhani back then. Still, it’s unlikely most Iranians have seen a notable improvement in their living situation since the conclusion of the deal, just a few months ago. And even if they did, Iran’s tightly controlled political system makes it hard for Rouhani’s allies to break through.
While Iran’s elections are deeply flawed, they do matter. The transition to Rouhani from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a meaningful one even if both were officially approved candidates. Whether the Iranian government continues to seek cooperation with other countries will depend in part on whether the reformists have some political breathing room. The other part is on the U.S., where the election in November may ultimately impact Rouhani’s political future, the nuclear deal, and Iran’s positioning in the world more than Friday’s results there.