Speaking to a journalist days after the February 26 elections in Iran, leading reformist Mohammad Reza Aref stated, “When I saw the results for Tehran coming in, I was shocked.” [1] Aref had expected the top of the list he headed to do well in the contest for Tehran’s 30 seats in the Tenth Majles, or Parliament, of the Islamic Republic. Most pre-election polls, in fact, had predicted that Aref’s slate would come out ahead in the capital. But its first-round sweep of all 30 seats, including many wins by unknown candidates, was a stunner for all involved.

Adding to the surprise was the success of the Tehran Province list put forth by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the same day’s elections for the Assembly of Experts. That 16-member clerical body is charged by the Islamic Republic’s constitution with oversight of the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and appointing his eventual replacement. Only the victory of Ahmad Jannati, the staunchly conservative secretary of the Guardian Council, in the sixteenth slot prevented a sweep by a single list in that balloting as well. The Guardian Council is the unelected clerical body empowered to veto acts of Parliament and to vet candidates for the legislature. The country’s chief disqualifier of candidates barely made his way into the next Assembly of Experts, while other well-known clerics, such as its current chair, Mohammad Yazdi who beat Rafsanjani in the contest for the chairmanship of the Assembly in 2015, were shut out.

The Tehran electorate was asked to vote for everyone on the combined List of Hope of “30+16” by none other than Mohammad Khatami, the president from 1997-2005 and the public face of the political movement that then sought to reform the Islamic Republic from within. Although the judiciary has barred Iranian newspapers from printing Khatami’s photograph or reporting his words, a majority answered his call made through social media, voting on the basis of list membership rather than for individual candidates. Nationwide, the list of parliamentary candidates put together by the committee headed by Aref was called Reformists and Supporters of the Government (RSG). Some observers were thus tempted to see in the February 26 outcomes a renewal of the reformists’ political fortunes.

Indeed, Tehran was rocked by a voting pattern reminiscent of the 2000 parliamentary elections, which put the reformists led by Khatami in charge of the Sixth Majles. [2] And the “shock” voiced by Aref recalled the 1997 presidential election, when Khatami had entered a race he himself did not think he could win. To those eager for reform, Aref’s words might have sounded ominous. The reformist camp was unprepared for victory in 1997, and arguably after that as well, releasing a deluge of popular demands for rapid change that were contained by institutional obstructionism and, eventually, brought a violent crackdown. By 2005, Iran’s reformist moment was over, and hardline conservatives were back in control of all branches of the state.

But, almost two decades after 1997, Iran is a different place. In the interim, its various political forces have undergone searing experiences and learned many lessons. The RSG alliance did not run on a platform of overarching reform. Its campaign slogan—Hope, Political Tranquility and Economic Prosperity—was vague and uninspiring.

The real story of the February elections is how a fairly lackluster campaign produced such dramatic results, made possible by relatively high voter turnout in certain parts of the capital. According to the Interior Ministry, the participation rate in Tehran, a city of approximately 7 million eligible voters, was 50 percent, about 30 percent higher than in 2012. Countrywide, turnout was 62 percent, lower than in 2012 (and much lower than in the 2000).

It is a story that, in effect, declares an end to an era of electoral engineering that guaranteed victory for those with high name recognition. By choosing to vote for unknown candidates based on their inclusion on lists, the majority of Tehran voters declared a preference for a particular direction for the country rather than particular personalities or a particular political faction.

The Campaign

The reformists organized early for the February elections, with the intent of increasing their parliamentary presence significantly. By law, the allotted time for parliamentary campaigning is only one week, but the strategy sessions began immediately after the 2013 presidential election won by Hassan Rouhani. Prior to that balloting, though he had been qualified as a candidate, Aref had stepped aside and endorsed Rouhani. The coalition of reformists and centrists known as “moderationists” that ushered Rouhani to victory knew that cooperation was the way to win the Majles as well.

The coalition leaders had no illusions that the Guardian Council would permit better-known reformists to run. The Council’s disqualification of Rafsanjani in 2013 showed it was willing to pay steep costs to its legitimacy to block candidates it disliked. But then the open alliance between reformists and centrists succeeded in electing a candidate with similar views to Rafsanjani, proving that the vetting body could be outmaneuvered.

The reformists, for their part, were determined to participate in the elections no matter the extent of the vetting. They threw down a gauntlet of sorts before the Guardian Council when, along with others, they registered an unprecedented 12,123 names of possible parliamentary candidates. The Council eventually qualified 6,300 or 55 percent of the registrants (many fewer than the usual 65 to 70 percent). The high number of registrants was a challenge that will likely require institutional or legal remedy. Even a member of the Council later noted the impossibility of giving so many files a fair examination over a 20-day period. [3]

But the RSG alliance’s overall strategy was not to gain a reformist parliamentary majority per se. The stated objectives were to put the country more firmly on the “moderate” path taken with Rouhani’s election, and the subsequent nuclear agreement with six world powers including the United States, and to marginalize the “extremists” in the Islamic Republic. Former deputy interior minister Mostafa Tajzadeh, who was arrested after the contested 2009 presidential election and issues statements from prison, went so far as to urge a vote against those who are “ISIS-like.”

Yet even conservatives could take a stand against hardline MPs’ vociferous opposition to the nuclear deal—indeed, Rouhani supporters and even some conservatives were included on the RSG’s countrywide list. The distinction between conservatives and “extremist” opponents of the government’s path was underlined by the move to link together the “30+16.” Tehrani voters, particularly in the more affluent northern and central parts of the city, were tantalized by the openly discussed prospect that strategic voting for two full lists could remove key clerics from the Assembly of Experts, such as Jannati, Yazdi and Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, identified as the spiritual leader of extremism and promoter of violence against reformists and Green Movement activists after the 2009 election.

The disagreement about the direction of the country was real. In Aref’s words, without some sort of public affirmation now, Rouhani’s reelection would be in danger in 2017. [4] Ironically, the reformists were aided in their alliance-based strategy by the Guardian Council’s extensive disqualification of candidates—not just reformists but centrists as well. So few passed Council muster in Tehran that at the end the RSG coalition was forced to place three conservative MPs on their list of 30.

The other side, known as “principlists,” did not face the problem of disqualification. If anything, their problem was too many candidates from whom to choose. The task of putting together a unified countrywide list entailed intense horse trading among organizations ranging from the revolution-era Society of Combatant Clerics to the Yekta Front, a newer, lay group consisting mostly of ministers from the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration. But, like their competitors, the principlists also perceived unity within the ranks as essential to success. They, too, had watched the 2013 presidential election, when Rouhani’s 51 percent tally was called a landslide victory because four self-identified principlist candidates had split the remainder between them. Rouhani’s closest rival, Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, got only 16 percent of the vote. The principlists spent months bringing together their various wings, ranging from middle-of-the-road conservatives to hardliners, and ended up offering a single countrywide slate under the aegis of the Comprehensive Principlist Alliance (CPA).

Alliances paid off for both sides, in the sense that candidates from the RSG and CPA lists won over 70 percent of the 221 seats decided on February 26 (including the five set aside for religious minorities), with the RSG list doing slightly better than the CPA list. Sixty seats went to independents whose political leanings will be clear only after they join a caucus (in the unlikely event that they form their own independent caucus, it would be a first in the Islamic Republic’s history). Another 69 seats will have to be awarded on April 29, since none of the candidates in those contests topped the 25 percent threshold necessary to win in the first round. Depending on the runoff results, the Tenth Majles may be weighted more toward one of the RSG or CPA lists or more toward independents. What is assured is a relatively balanced parliament that is not the exclusive domain of any one political force.

The new balance, however, should not deflect attention from the fact that the principlists lost ground and the reformists gained. The principlists hold absolute dominance in the current Ninth Majles, with the reformists occupying only a handful of seats. Devastated by what happened in the 2009 presidential election, and the repression of the ensuing Green Movement, the reformists hardly contested the 2012 parliamentary elections and wound up with so few MPs that they did not bother to form a caucus.

As such, while alliance building and better organization paid off for both sides of the Islamic Republic’s permitted political spectrum, it did so unevenly. In the country’s second largest urban area, the shrine city of Mashhad, CPA candidates won all five seats because they fielded bigger names, had better networks for mobilizing their supporters and, of course, benefited from the Guardian Council’s aggressive vetting of their potential opponents.  The principlists also won the two seats of the city of Karaj, adjacent to Tehran, and did well in Iran’s other religious center, the seminary city of Qom, where they grabbed two out of three seats, with the third seat going to current Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, who ran as an independent (with RSG backing, for lack of other options). But, in general, the RSG list performed better in large cities. RSG won the top seat in Tabriz and remains in contention for four others to be decided in the second round. In Isfahan, RSG won three of the five seats; in Shiraz it won three seats and is in the runoff for the fourth. In Ahvaz, the eighth city with a population over 1 million, RSG is competing against a CPA list member and two independents for all the three seats that have gone to the second round. And the biggest prize, of course, is Tehran.

The CPA and RSG did equally well in less populous urban districts, respectively winning 13 and 12 of the 56 seats in smaller cities with two or three seats. In these districts, independents won 10 seats, and 21 will be decided in the second round. The CPA has an edge of about a dozen seats over the RSG in constituencies with only one seat. But such aggregate numbers hide provincial variations. In the Kerman province, for instance, the CPA list won both seats in the capital city but lost all eight of the single-seat districts to RSG candidates and independents.

The magnitude of the RSG alliance’s success is better understood if the objective of shunting hardliners aside is taken into account. Though lacking an effective reformist presence, the Ninth Majles is nevertheless divided into two competing principlist caucuses. The larger, more moderate one—the Followers of Velayat-e Faqih (Rule of the Jurisprudent)—boasts about 180 members who, together, accounted for the speakership of Larijani. The smaller one—named simply the Principlists—consists of about 100 members, including 40 to 50 hardliners who took a leading role in the opposition to the nuclear agreement. This caucus was also responsible for numerous interpellations of ministers and the impeachment of one. And it was this coterie of arch-conservatives that lost heavily in the February elections, with only 17 of its members returning so far. The incumbency rate in Iranian parliamentary elections is about 30 percent, but in this case, the loss is acutely felt: The most outspoken of the hardline caucus were all from Tehran, and they all took a drubbing.

A case can even be made that in Tehran the principlists’ success in creating a unified list harmed the electoral prospects of at least a few of their members with high name recognition. Since it featured the loudest opponents of the nuclear accord and Rouhani’s redirection of foreign policy, the list was perceived as the polar opposite of the one that had “Supporters of the Government” in its name.

In voting for “30+16,” and thus linking the RSG parliamentary list with Rafsanjani’s for the Assembly of Experts, the Tehran majority threw around the political weight of the citizenry despite the heavy-handed intervention of the Guardian Council. It was an ingenious way for Tehranis to cast a protest vote, but one that mattered. Rather than boycotting, the voters extended a helping hand to the alliance that was most handicapped by the vetting process.

What to Make of All This?

The success of the RSG alliance, in spite of the massive disqualification of candidates, calls into question the efficacy of the vetting system that the conservative institutions of the Islamic Republic have long used to exert control over the popular will. Since the 2004 parliamentary elections, keen to prevent a repeat of 2000, the Guardian Council and the judiciary have harried candidates with a reformist agenda. Their efforts to see to it that voters would end up choosing conservatives had worked up to now. Lack of choice, general apathy and principlist confidence in a committed base had given the last three parliamentary elections to conservatives. The vetting process was ineffective in the 2013 presidential election, but the conservative clerics hoped that local dynamics of competition for parliamentary seats and the importance of name recognition would make it work better in those contests.  Their logic was best reflected in Tehran, where, aside from Aref, only five of the over 1,000 qualified candidates on the RSG list could be considered well known. Even centrists of prominence were disqualified. The only other list member with high name recognition, Ali Mottahari, is a renegade conservative critical of the crackdown and imprisonments after the 2009 election. He was allowed to run only after much lobbying in reaction to his initial disqualification by the Guardian Council.

The committed conservative base did come out to vote. Those members of the CPA list of 30 who were first elected in 2012 garnered larger vote totals in 2016. But these tallies were swamped by the higher overall turnout. In the Assembly of Experts race in Tehran, Ayatollah Jannati received close to 400,000 more votes for his sixteenth-place finish than what he got to finish fifth in 2006. Jannati had sensed problems prior to the voting, and for the first time engaged in campaigning, not in the capital but in Qarchak and Varamin, two smaller cities in the Tehran province that reelected a hardline MP. For Jannati, it was just barely enough to offset the higher voter turnout in central and northern Tehran.

The principlists tried to woo additional voters by accusing their opponents of enjoying US and British support. In that regard, they got an assist from Khamenei, who said in a February 17 speech that voters might not know many of the candidates. He continued that Iranians should vote for those who will not open the way to Western economic and cultural penetration. “Know what the enemy wants, and then do the opposite.”

Ultimately, however, the RSG was more effective in lining up voters against the “extremists.” Perhaps this fact explains why, after the elections, the hardline dailies Kayhan and Vatan-Emrooz insisted that the CPA had actually won countrywide and the Tehran results were not representative. Surely, they could not bring themselves to acknowledge that a good part of the Iranian electorate had proven immune to charges that their rivals were handmaidens of imperialism. Some of the losers could not hide their unhappiness, however. Mesbah Yazdi accused the masterminds of the campaign against him of being “debased,” and “surrendering to the enemy” the values of his country “in order to stay in power for a few more days.” [5] Khamenei also expressed dissatisfaction with the Assembly of Experts results in Tehran, calling the elimination of Mesbah Yazdi and Yazdi a loss. But, while warning again of the perils of foreign infiltration, he did affirm that the elections were valid.

All in all, the most interesting aspect of the 2016 Iranian elections so far is that both the “extremists” and the “agents of foreign penetration” deployed over-the-top invective, and still their respective targets both managed to survive. Neither camp, it seems, is able to get rid of the other.

Indeed, the election dynamics and results point out the pitfalls of debates that center around questions like “Who won?” and “Do elections matter?” in which the implication is often that elections do not matter if the politicians or political forces favored by the analyst did not win. Iranian politics is not a zero-sum game. Elections are revealing of political trends, and sometimes even transformative, in ways that transcend the winners and losers and even the institutions they inhabit.


[1] Etemad, March 2, 2016.
[2] For detailed Tehran results see Syracuse University’s Iran Portal.
[3] Interview with Nejatollah Ebrahimian in Etemad, March 1, 2016.
[4] Etemad, March 7, 2016.
[5] Fararu, March 12, 2016.

How to cite this article:

Farideh Farhi "The Day Tehran Shook," Middle East Report Online, March 17, 2016.

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