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Op-Ed: Iran Elections Approach, but do they mean anything? (Includes interview)

Already, however, turnout is projected to be low. Owing to the fact that all candidates standing for election essentially support the status quo, many of those who seek actual reform are expected to stay away from the polls.

The low turnout appears to be worrying the Iranian regime led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Low voter participation will damage the regime’s legitimacy in the international sphere, and could hint at rising dissatisfaction with the government. According to Maryam Rajavi, President-Elect of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), whose movement has urged Iranians to boycot the elections, Khamenei has even issued “ludicrous religious decrees (fatwas) to say that participating in elections is a religious obligation, blank ballots violate Sharia law, and that “the participation of women in elections does not require a husband’s consent.”

While the last election saw Hassan Rouhani, a moderate as far as Iranian politicians go, sweep into power after a relatively large turnout, there are doubts whether reformists will even show up at the polls this time around. Rouhani himself has largely proven to be a part of the establishment, and so far the “reform” delivered has fallen short of hopes for true, meaningful change.

In Iran, however, true reformists are essentially barred from seeking office. Supreme Leader Khamenei must approve of all candidates seeking office, and as a result, essentially all of the candidates who seek election support the regime. Thus, while Rouhani may appear moderate compared to the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in practice he is still working to support and expand the power of the ruling clerics.

Given the massive amount of control that the ruling theocracy exercises over who is allowed to run for office, any chance of real reform seems slim. As Maryam Rajavi argued in a released statement “the clerical regime is based on absolute rejection of popular sovereignty and is alien to free elections. The sham elections are merely an instrument for imposing a medieval caliphate on the 21st century, not to mention that they act as a lever for purging rival factions.”

Technically, there are no parties in Iran, and all candidates run on their own. In practice, however, candidates tend to align to various factions, and use their allegiance to these de facto factions, to draw support. The current president, Rouhani, has generally been seen as a moderate, but is also seen as supporting the status quo, and in particular, the Supreme Leader.

Besides electing representatives to parliament, the up-coming election will also determine the Assembly of Experts, who in turn will choose the next Supreme Leader when Khamenei dies or steps down. While Khamenei is aging, and rumored to have prostate cancer, his replacement will almost certainly come from the hard-lined clerics who currently rule the country and are working to maintain the status quo.

The Supreme Leader has the final say on nearly all issues in Iran. While the Assembly of Experts, which is an elected body, technically has oversight over the Supreme Leader, in practice their power is limited and largely unexercised. Experts are not even sure if the Assembly will be given the right to appoint the next Supreme Leader. Further, the current Supreme Leader can bar candidates from running for election.

Some Iran observers argue that regardless of the outcome, the regime as a whole will emerge weaker and more vulnerable as the factional feuding will further dent Khamenei’s authority.

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