Implications of Iranian Elections


An apparent strong showing by supporters of President Hassan Rouhani might reflect broad support for the nuclear agreement between Iran and major international powers ("Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action," JCPOA) that is providing significant sanctions relief. Iran's core national security goals are unlikely to change, and with runoffs still to come, any possible easing of social and political restrictions is difficult to predict. The results could affect the choice of the next Supreme Leader.

Election Processes

On February 26, 2016, Iran held elections for the 290-seat Majles (parliament) and for the 88-seat body called the "Assembly of Experts," which is empowered to choose a successor to the Supreme Leader and rewrite Iran's constitution. On April 29, a runoff election was held for the 68 Majles seats not decided in the first round (no candidate having received 25%). The Majles plays a significant role on budgetary and economic decisions, but less of a role on issues of national security.

The Majles seats are allocated to 207 geographic constituencies, meaning that some constituencies send more than one person to the body. Tehran, for example, sends 30 members to the Majles. The Assembly of Experts seats are divided among Iran's 31 provinces. The largest constituency in both elections is Tehran, which sends 30 persons to the Majles and 16 to the Assembly of Experts. Five Majles seats are reserved for members of the "recognized" religious minorities (Zoroastrians, Jews, and several Christian denominations). Political parties are generally banned, and factions compete as loose alliances of candidates based on ideology.

For the Majles: The Interior Ministry and cleric-controlled vetting body called the Council of Guardians (CoG) approved 6,200 candidates to compete for the 290 seats, including 586 female candidates—invalidating the candidacies of about 6,000 applicants. The disqualifications included a majority of "reformist" candidates—proponents of substantial easing of restrictions on freedom of expression.

Former President Mohammad Khatemi and another leading reformist, Mohammad Reza Aref, allied for the election with pro-Rouhani "moderate-conservatives" into a combined "List of Hope" slate in an effort to reduce the percentage of "hardliners" (who call themselves "Principalists") in the body. The Principalists express loyalty to Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i and some also support ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For the Assembly of Experts: Candidates were required to be broadly recognized by the Shiite clergy as able to interpret Islamic law, meaning that only Shiite clerics qualify. Of the 800 candidates who applied, the CoG approved only 161 candidates, rendering some races uncontested.


The turnout in the first round was about 62% of Iran's 55 million eligible voters, similar to recent elections. The number of Majles seats decided was 222, leaving 68 to be decided in the April 29 runoff. All observers agree that the Principalists will enter the new Majles with far fewer than the nearly 200 seats they hold in the current Majles. The pro-Rouhani List of Hope won about 90 seats in the initial round, and another 30+ in the runoff. Sources estimate that pro-Rouhani representatives will have 122-135 seats in the incoming Majles—a plurality but not an outright majority. The Principalists reportedly will have about 100-120 seats, and independents not aligned with any faction will hold the remainder. All figures are approximate because of the absence of party affiliations and the presence of some candidates on multiple informal slates. No runoff was held in Tehran because the pro-Rouhani coalition—and mostly reformists within that coalition—swept all 30 seats in the first round.

Based on the results, the new Majles is likely to be far more supportive of Rouhani than is the current one. However, any Majles decision is often determined by the issue, Khamene'i's views, regional circumstances, and many other factors. Differences within the pro-Rouhani coalition will likely emerge after the new Majles is seated; reformists emphasize the lifting of social restrictions, whereas moderate-conservatives—and Rouhani himself—emphasize economic reform. Rouhani has, to date, resisted confronting judiciary hardliners on issues such as releasing reformist figures imprisoned for leading the 2009 uprising in Iran, although he has campaigned for the removal of a government-directed ban on media coverage of former President Khatemi.

The Assembly of Experts election could prove highly consequential if Khamene'i passes away during its eight-year term. Moderate-conservatives won more than half its seats, including all but one of Tehran's 16 seats in the body. Two prominent hardliners—current Assembly chairman Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi and Ahmadinejad mentor Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi—lost their seats. The only hardliner to win a seat from Tehran Province was the current CoG chairman, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who placed last. The top vote-getter in Tehran was ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Rouhani's mentor, a result that could boost Rafsanjani's chances of returning to the Assembly chairmanship he lost in 2011 after running afoul of hardliners. Rouhani placed third in that province.


The election results suggest that Rouhani's policies are popular, and that his prospects for reelection in 2017 are good. The loss of key hardline Assembly of Experts members could improve the chances for a more moderate leader to replace Khamene'i, should the 76-year-old leader pass away in the next eight years. The elections might not substantively alter Iran's core regional policies, which are set primarily by Khamene'i and implemented by the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The issue of social and political freedoms remains strongly influenced by hardliners in the judiciary. Still, the elections appear to have strongly endorsed the JCPOA—the centerpiece of Rouhani's presidency to date—and might embolden Rouhani to push forward on economic reform. He might try to curb the economic influence of parastatal corporations, bonyads (cleric-controlled foundations), and government-linked conglomerates that have marginalized the traditional private sector. Opening the economy is crucial to attracting the foreign investment required to derive maximum benefits from sanctions relief. However, economic reform could incur resistance from the IRGC, Khamene'i, and other hardline power centers. Reformists in his coalition might press Rouhani to try to achieve the release of the imprisoned reformist leaders Musavi and Karrubi; however, Rouhani has thus far shown no inclination to buck hardliner opposition on this issue.