LONDON: With parliamentary elections due on Feb. 21, Iran’s clerical establishment has blocked more candidates from running than at any time since the 1979 revolution.
In addition, the Guardian Council — comprising 12 senior religious and legal scholars appointed by Iran’s supreme leader — has
used its sweeping power over elections to prevent 90 percent of reformist candidates from running for office.
Roughly 9,000 people, including 90 sitting MPs, have been blocked from running on grounds ranging from financial irregularities and drug use to “not being faithful to Islam.”
The disqualifications make a hard-liner parliament significantly more likely, despite the popularity of reformists in the last election.
In 2016, reformists and their allies swept to victory with 41 percent of the vote, compared with just 29 percent for hard-liners.
Criticism of the bans has erupted in Iran, with the reformist policymaking High Council accusing the Guardian Council of bias against its candidates.
If the Guardian Council continues on this path, the High Council said, 230 out of 290 seats will have no reformist candidates, and 160 constituencies will have no competitor.
President Hassan Rouhani has spoken out against the Guardian Council, saying: “We can’t simply announce that 1,700 candidates have been approved and ignore the question of how many political groups those people represent. That’s not what an election is about.”
This widespread discrimination against reformist candidates could mean the final death knell for the Iran nuclear deal, said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“A swing of parliament to a conservative and hard-line majority will make political life harder for the remaining supporters of the Iran nuclear deal in government,” she added.
“If Iran’s Guardian Council resort to mass disqualification of the reformists to weaken the Rouhani government, then this will only further erode the legitimacy of the parliamentary system.”
Despite parliament’s limited power, it does have influence over “bread and butter issues,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director for the Middle East program at Chatham House.
She added that while parliament cannot directly influence foreign policy, “it can contribute to a hard-line populist atmosphere creating a climate around foreign policy. It can, for instance, call for the impeachment of the president, and has in the past.”
Iranian parliamentary elections also set the tone for future presidential elections, Vakil said, and even “for the succession to (Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei.”
The Guardian Council began barring candidates in January while the country was wracked by countrywide protests, Dr. Mahsa Rouhi, research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said at the time.
Those protests were in response to the government’s downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane and the subsequent cover-up.