Iran’s voters go to the polls Friday in the first major test of public opinion in the Islamic republic since last summer’s nuclear accord, a vote that may well determine whether President Hassan Rouhani has a green light to forge ahead with long-promised political and economic reforms in the nation.
While opposition activists say the parliamentary elections are a sham — with thousands of reform and moderate candidates barred from running by an ultrareligious “Guardian Council” — analysts say the stakes are incredibly high for Mr. Rouhani, who came to power in 2013 on a vow to repair relations with the West and to ease social freedoms in Iran and counter the influence of the country’s hard-liners.
“If he gets a parliament that is not dominated by anti-Rouhani people, he is going to have a much easier time to push through some of the changes he wants,” said Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council.
At the same time, Mr. Parsi said, if Rouhani supporters come away with a majority in the 290-member “Majlis,” or parliament, there will be “greater pressure on him to do what he promised to do originally on improving civil and human rights in Iran.”
“One wonders whether Rouhani may not want to have much of a victory because of expectations,” he said. “If he wins big, expectations among the public over how much should change may get out of control.”
Expectations have soared higher with the signing of the nuclear deal and the end of a slew of international sanctions on Iran’s struggling economy. Foreign companies and investors are flocking to the country, but whether that translates into economic growth and a surge of employment remains to be seen.
Failure to deliver tangible benefits could lead to political protests, which would likely result in the kind of aggressive crackdown by the government’s security apparatus that gripped Tehran after the nation’s 2009 presidential election.
With that prospect looming large, Iranians also will pick a so-called Assembly of Experts — a powerful committee of Shiite Islamic clerics that stands entirely apart from the parliament, and which many believe has significantly more power.
The 88-member assembly’s primary task is to supervise the work of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation’s ultimate authority, who has broad individual powers over all branches of the government, including the military and justice system.
But the assembly’s biggest role could emerge sometime in its next eight-year term: choosing the next supreme leader.
Ayatollah Khamenei has held an iron grip on the post since 1989, but he is now 76 and underwent prostate surgery in 2014. When he dies, the assembly will choose his successor, potentially charting Iran’s course for many years to come.
The run-up to Friday’s vote has been plagued with controversy over which candidates are allowed to run in both elections.
The Guardian Council, another government body composed of 12 clerics appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei and the conservative-dominated parliament, is in charge of vetting all candidates based on their loyalty to the Islamic republic and the principles of the 1979 revolution.
Thousands have been rejected during recent weeks, and reformists backing Mr. Rouhani seem to have suffered the heaviest blow. Among those failing to make the cut: a grandson of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the hero of the 1979 uprising that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah.
Mr. Rouhani won a small victory by lobbying the Guardian Council to permit an extra 1,500 candidates to run, but several prominent moderates remain barred.
The situation has prompted some to wonder whether Ayatollah Khamenei may be trying to control the outcome of the parliamentary vote in a bid to contain the scope of Mr. Rouhani’s reforms.
The supreme leader grudgingly allowed Mr. Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to negotiate a nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers last summer, in the face of considerable hard-line opposition, after the moderate cleric won the 2013 presidential election with a landslide on a pledge of easing Iran’s isolation abroad and repression at home.
But aside from the nuclear deal, the Iranian president’s push for reforms has been slow at best. Analysts say human rights conditions remain deplorable in Iran, with the number of public executions and political imprisonments surging during Mr. Rouhani’s tenure.
Hard-liners now fear that voters, anticipating improved living standards with the removal of sanctions under the nuclear deal, will reward pro-Rouhani candidates in the elections.
A pro-Rouhani coalition of reformists and moderates is playing up the nuclear agreement’s long-term economic potential and is seeking to swing the balance of power in parliament away from conservatives.
Should the bloc — the Alliance of Reformists and Government Supporters — succeed, Mr. Rouhani may be able to pass legislation that delivers at least modest political changes and social reforms.
Referring to the group’s campaign slogan, “Second Step,” Mohammad Reza Aref, one of its leading candidates, told the Agence France-Presse news service that the first step was Mr. Rouhani’s election victory in 2013.
“That approach won, and we want to continue that approach now in these elections,” Mr. Aref said.
‘Scorpions in a box’
But the unchecked power exercised by the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts sits at the center of what many Iranian opposition activists and exiles describe as wholesale theocratic corruption undermining the entire democratic process in Iran.
Among the most vocal critics is the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exile organization with offices in Paris and Washington. Last week, the group issued a 71-page critique asserting that the “clerical regime” in Tehran is appearing to hold elections while “preserving a monopoly of power” through the supreme leader.
The council arranged interviews for The Washington Times with two individuals who described themselves as activists inside Iran, who echoed the sentiment.
“We don’t have any democratic elections in Iran with this regime,” said one, a 27-year-old who asked to be identified only as Shahram. “The Western countries think that we have two different parties: the moderate party and the hard-liners. But in my opinion, as a younger person who lives in Iran, both parties are the same.”
“It’s not an election; it’s a selection,” Shahram added. “They put some scorpions in a box and tell us, ‘You have the freedom to choose which one by pencil or by blood,’ but it’s not a democratic election at all.”
Others say the elections are contests despite the constricted scope of Iranian politics and that the results will have real consequences.
“At the end of the day, these elections are very much compromised and have a tremendous amount of nondemocratic qualities to them,” said Mr. Parsi. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not competitive within the limited space that there is, nor does it mean that they’re not consequential.”
If conservative hard-liners retain or expand their control of the parliament, they can be expected to try to crush Mr. Rouhani’s desire to seize on sanctions relief from the nuclear deal and open Iran’s economy to the West.
Where the Iranian president hopes to push reforms that will inspire foreign investors to pour money into the economy, he is already getting resistance from conservatives, who don’t want such investment to open the way for American influence over the nation’s businesses and wider culture.
Alternatively, Mr. Parsi said, dangers are tied to the prospect of a major hard-liner defeat Friday.
“If too many conservatives end up outside the political system,” he said, “they may try to apply pressure outside the system to create problems by radicalizing society and carrying out attacks on [foreign] interests.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.