Smoke and mirrors in Iranian elections

11th March 2016

Jane Green reports.

Media coverage of the Parliamentary elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran last week were remarkable for their absence of criticism of the theocratic regime, its human rights record and its role as one of the world’s leaders in terms of capital punishment.

The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the reports were covering activity in a parliamentary democracy, where the usual rules of free speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly would apply.  Such an observer could also be fooled into believing that the characterisation of the division between liberals and hardline conservatives  would bear some resemblance to the everyday use of such terms in Western parliamentary democracy.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

What reports of the election have failed to emphasise is that all elections in Iran are severely restricted.  Candidates are vetted in advance by the Guardian Council, which consists of 12 members, including six clerics, who have the right to veto candidates.  These six clerics are appointed by the Supreme Leader and they lead the Guardian Council.

For the parliamentary elections, held on 26th February, there were originally more than 12,000 candidates.  However, many of the applications were rejected by the Guardian Council, resulting in only about 6,000 remaining eligible for election.  For those rejected there is no recourse to contest the vetting; the Guardian Council’s position is absolute. Of the 3000 pro-reform candidates nominated to stand, less than 70 eventually made it to the ballot paper.  No leading politician with progressive or known pro-reform stance was allowed to contest the elections.  Those members of the outgoing parliament who were deemed as too troublesome and critical were also disqualified from standing again.

Media reports have made much of the fact that 14 members of the 290 strong parliament will be women.  Originally 1400 women had registered to stand as candidates for the elections.  However, the restrictions in the selection process mean that, in spite of a small percentage of women being elected, they will not be in a position to make significant changes.  40% of women, the more able and campaigning pro-reform candidates, were disqualified and didn’t make it onto the ballot box.  Those women who have been in parliament over the years in the past three decades have either confined their contributions to ‘female’ family issues or, where they have been more outspoken, they have been batting for the fundamentalist faction against women’s rights and gender equality.

Despite the campaign promises of Rouhani to eliminate gender discrimination, the current government has not established a ministry for women’s affairs.  Within the cabinet, all key ministerial positions are filled by men, while women hold subordinate roles as deputies or advisors and as heads of governors’ offices.

The limitations of ‘opposition’ within the elections have been made clear, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stating categorically “those who are not for the Islamic Republic can vote, but they cannot be a candidate.”  To all intents and purposes, all candidates are in effect supporters of the regime and actually, there is no opposition.

While the Western media have conspired to characterise the elections as a victory for the ‘reformist’ supporters of President Hassan Rouhani, this is less to do with the internal politics of Iran than the desire of the United States and European Union to re-brand Iran as a partner of the West in the politics of the Middle East.  .  It was telling that the British government announced the reopening of its Embassy in Tehran the day before the parliamentary elections and after years of closure.

Evidence from opposition in Iran, forced to operate underground, suggests that turnout in the capital, Tehran, was only 50% of those eligible to vote, with this pattern being repeated across key areas such as the restive Western province of Kurdestan.  Sources also suggest that those from working class areas such as the province of Alborz, in central Iran, and young people did not vote in significant numbers.  The result of the election appears to be one that reflects the desires of the relatively safe, relatively conservative middle classes of the Islamic Republic, who have no interest in radical change from the current established order.

As the elections approached, trade union activists found themselves subject to increased attacks, with dozens arrested or sentenced on trumped-up national security and public order charges.  On the eve of the election, the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Transport Workers’ Federation issued protests against the wave of increased arrests of union leaders and activists.

Since his election in 2013 President Rouhani has claimed that he wanted to put in place reforms regarding fundamental freedoms, the release of political prisoners and ending the house arrests of two 2009 presidential candidates, Karroubi and Mousavi.  However, there has been no positive change concerning these issues.

In the UK the solidarity organisation, the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR), has consistently suggested that if Iran is willing to negotiate with world powers and make concessions such as freeing foreign prisoners, it should make similar concessions in the domestic arena.

It is widely expected that Iran will use its access to new funds to gain revenue by selling its oil and gas in the international market.  Deals with international corporations have already been signed and the Islamic Republic enjoys increasing respectability on the world stage.

CODIR has already expressed concern that the new opportunities will not be used to create more wealth and prosperity for the people of Iran.  They will not result in the freeing of a single unjustly imprisoned trade union, political or women’s rights activist.  The recent elections, while giving the Western media the chance to parade Iran as a legitimate partner, will do nothing to change the lives of those unjustly imprisoned and often executed by the regime.

The smoke and mirrors employed by the Western media regarding elections in Iran must not be allowed to divert trade union and human rights activists in the UK from the reality of life in the Islamic Republic.  For those struggling to establish basic democratic rights in Iran solidarity action to expose their plight is now needed more than ever.

Jane Green is the National Campaign Officer of CODIR.   e-mail:


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