On February 15, 2000, David Menashri, chair of Tel Aviv University's Department of Middle Eastern and African History and senior research fellow at the university's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies; and Michael Rubin, a Soref fellow at The Washington Institute, addressed the Institute's Special Policy Forum. The following is a rapporteur's summary Mr. Rubin's remarks.
In the 1996 parliamentary elections, many candidates were disqualified by the Council of Guardians. This year, to increase the chances that pro-reformists would clear the vetting process, thousands applied to run. In a clever move, the Council cleared nearly all--though not the most famous--applicants. As a result, approximately 6,000 candidates are running for the 290 seats in parliament. In Tehran, there are over 500 candidates for 30 seats. But in many districts, there are only a dozen or fewer candidates for one seat. In these districts, the large number of candidates claiming to be pro-reform could divide the reform vote, while there may be only one hardliner running; it is possible that the hardliner may get a plurality of the vote in such a district. To maximize the prospects for such hardline candidates, the outgoing parliament changed the election law so that the candidate with the plurality wins if he has 25 percent of the vote (compared to 50 percent previously); only in those districts in which no candidate gets 25 percent will there be a second round.
A reform victory in the election is no guarantee that reform policies will win. There are many centers of power in Iran that constitute significant firewalls to change. One is the Council of Guardians, appointed by the Supreme Leader. After the last parliament election in 1996, the Council of Guardians switched the victor from a reformist to a conservative candidate in three districts, and in twenty-three other districts it annulled the election; that means the Council of Guardians stopped reformers in post-election moves that affected 26 out of 270 seats. Considering the student protests of 1999, manipulations in these elections would lead to disillusionment among the youth and could trigger student protests larger than those in 1999, so it seems unlikely that hardliners will use the same techniques they employed in 1996. But they could use other techniques to prevent reformers from implementing their program even if the reformers take the Majlis--particularly given the fact that the parliament's power is distinctly limited. Several times in the history of the Islamic Republic the Majlis was overwhelmingly in support of one set of policies but was overruled by the Council of Guardians, which has to approve every law passed by parliament.
Another firewall to change in Iran is the groups who oppose change irrespective of the democratic process and who might be willing to provoke a crisis. One such group is the Ansar-e Hizbullah. Their manifesto calls for fighting against corruption, countering the Western cultural assault, fighting against capitalism, crushing liberalism and secular thought, and crushing those who support dealings with the West. This group enjoys support from important revolutionary institutions, and it has carried out frequent attacks on reformers.
In short, these parliamentary elections may well continue the process of change in Iran, but the hardliners have many instruments to slow or block progress.
This Special Policy Forum Report was prepared by Heiko Stoiber.