Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei didn't mince his words during end-of-Ramadan prayers last August. "Elections have always been a challenging issue for our country," he told worshippers gathered at Tehran University. "We should be careful this challenge does not hurt the country's security. The various authorities should be vigilant."
Khamenei spoke for a reason. On March 2, Iranians are once again going to the polls to elect their parliament, the majles. That's a delicate matter at a moment when many of the country's citizens are increasingly questioning the legitimacy of the religious despots who run it. The supreme leader is fully aware of this, and his words capture the importance that fundamentalist Shiite clergymen ascribe to ensuring voting goes the way they want it to. Given the growing pressures that Iranian rulers now face, they will be going to extraordinary lengths to prevent any untoward displays of dissatisfaction. The upcoming vote, indeed, is shaping up to be even less free and fair than ones in the past.
These parliamentary elections come at a turbulent time. Domestic mismanagement and international sanctions have reduced the economy to a shambles. Many Iranians blame the ideologically inflexible Shiite theocrats for their nation's internal woes and global isolation. Iranian youth, who make up over 50 percent of the population, are rejecting clerically-dictated behavioral codes. Even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, having sensed the shifting winds of popular sentiment, has begun opposing the mandates and mores of his clerical overlords. The political discontent that crystallized around the reformist Green Path of Hope (or Green Movement) during June 2009's rigged presidential election, only to be violently suppressed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij paramilitaries, continues to simmer.
Yet, despite the mounting frustration of Iran's citizens, events during the run-up to the parliamentary elections suggest that regime change through domestically-inspired, popularly determined politics is less likely than ever before. Faced with the most serious political, social, and economic challenges to their rule in three decades, the ayatollahs are manipulating the representational process not just to thwart reform but to ensure that all avenues for change are shut down.
To be sure, elections in Iran have never exactly been a free-for-all. The 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah produced a system that awkwardly tried to reconcile mechanisms for popular representation with what is essentially a clerical dictatorship. Throughout the history of the Islamic Republic, elections have sometimes given the populace chances to vent their dissatisfaction with their rulers, prompting the clergy to push back. The post-revolutionary constitution gives the Guardian Council (whose twelve members are appointed by the Supreme Leader and the majles itself) "responsibility for supervising the elections." In practice, that means that the Council vets candidates to ensure that none of the parliamentarians who are elected will have the temerity to propose laws unfavorable to the clerical regime. The Council has been chaired since 1988 by the octogenarian Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who publicly denounces those seeking change as "heretics who should not be permitted to participate in politics," even calling for "execution of opponents ... as enemies of God."
Disqualification of candidates by the Guardian Council has become increasingly frequent in elections. Four years ago, only 4946 of the 7168 registered candidates were allowed to contest the parliamentary election. Those struck from the ballots included one-third of the outgoing majles' membership -- an astonishing figure. The Guardian Council provides a constitutionally sanctioned means for the ayatollahs to consolidate their political power by determining the eligibility of elected officials. The correspondingly pro-clergy legislature can then thwart democratic aspirations.
This time around, the Guardian Council has once again begun systematically throwing out the candidacies of reformist and opposition figures. So far 35 percent of those seeking parliamentary seats have been rejected -- the highest number ever. Those disbarred include retired ambassadors and provincial governors, even honorably discharged police and military commanders. Names of at least several dozen current parliamentarians will also be barred from making it onto the ballot. Grounds for disqualification include allegations that candidates do not believe in Islam or do not accept the theory of clerical rule.