In spite of the Iranian regime’s claims that it holds democratic presidential elections, the system is fundamentally an authoritarian one disguised as a democracy.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in February boasted about the regime’s political system and the people’s important role in influencing and shaping the political establishment. He said: “The Islamic revolution transformed the rule of a country from a despotic monarchy into a popular, democratic republic run by the people. Today, the nation of Iran rules over its own destiny. It is the people who choose. They may make a right choice or a wrong choice, but it is they who choose. This is very important.”
But the reality is that ordinary people do not run the system in Iran and they have little to no influence in choosing who runs the country. To make it clear, the supreme leader is not an elected individual. How can a country be democratic, as Khamenei claims, when people cannot choose the overall leader, who enjoys the final say over the nation’s domestic and foreign policy issues and who is the chief of Iran’s military institutions, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), its elite branch the Quds Force, and the paramilitary group the Basij? Since the unelected supreme leader appoints the IRGC’s senior generals and the head of the judiciary, the regime’s military and judicial apparatuses also have a distinctly undemocratic character.
What remains to be examined in the system are the positions of the president and the parliamentarians. Article 6 of Iran’s constitution stipulates: “In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country’s affairs must be administered by reliance on the public vote, and through elections. These will include the election of the president, the deputies of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, the members of the councils, and other such institutions, or through a referendum in such instances as are determined in other articles of this document.”
But the Iranian regime has a solution to circumvent this: By presenting a facade of democratic elections while effectively eliminating people’s influence in choosing their president and members of the parliament. This is carried out by the regime’s clerical body, the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council is an unelected body of 12 officials, six of whom are appointed directly by the supreme leader and six indirectly. The latter six are nominated by the head of the judiciary, who is himself appointed by the supreme leader.
The Guardian Council has a history of arbitrarily disqualifying reform-minded candidates, women and those who are perceived as disloyal to the principles of the state and the Islamic revolution from running for office. The authority to do so is granted by the constitution, which states: “The qualifications of the candidates for presidency, with respect to the conditions set forth by the constitution, must be confirmed by the Guardian Council prior to the general elections and approved by the leader for the first term.”
As a result, people only get to choose between a few individuals selected by the regime. Despite this, Khamenei last month insisted that Iran’s elections are flawless, saying: “All elections held by the Islamic Republic have been totally flawless. There might have been certain issues and offenses, but none of them had a significant impact on the result of elections. Those who raise fraud claims do so because of being defeated.”
Of course, it should not come as a surprise that, from the perspective of Iran’s supreme leader, the elections are flawless, as he can pick the candidates he wants to be president.
For this year’s presidential election, which will take place on June 18, the regime has disqualified anyone who might have had a chance of defeating Ebrahim Raisi, who is Khamenei’s pick for president. The Guardian Council has even disqualified top regime insiders such as Ali Larijani, not because it questions their loyalty to the supreme leader and the revolutionary ideals of the Islamic Republic, but simply because Khamenei seems to want someone else to be president of Iran this time.
The regime is cognizant of the fact that Raisi is extremely unpopular in Iran — he lost the previous election to the so-called moderate Hassan Rouhani by a landslide. Rouhani received about 23.5 million of the 41 million votes cast, while Raisi received 15.7 million. This time around, the regime does not want to risk Raisi suffering another defeat. For one thing, Khamenei is 82 years old and it is believed that he sees Raisi as the perfect cleric to succeed him. In addition, at these critical times, when people’s frustration toward the regime has reached its peak, the hard-liners not only want to control the judicial and legislative branches, but also the presidential office.
Khamenei and the senior cadre of the IRGC believe they can suppress opposition more effectively and end the growing power struggle between the moderates and the hard-liners by having control of all branches of the Islamic Republic.
In a nutshell, the Iranian regime is paving the way for Khamenei’s pick, Raisi, to become the next president.