The Iranian Election: Implications for the UK

On Friday 1st March, the Islamic Republic of Iran held a tightly controlled set of legislative elections for both the Majles and the ‘Assembly Experts’. The latter is a body of 88 ‘qualified’ clerics elected once every 8 years, tasked with choosing the next ‘supreme’ leader. The body elected on March 1st is likely to be the one that chooses the successor to the ailing 84-year-old ‘supreme’ leader, Ali Khamenei. 

These elections were the first since the nationwide protests in 2022-23 after the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police, and the subsequent state crackdown which is estimated to have claimed the lives of over 500 protesters, including over 70 children. 

Even autocratic regimes like Iran use the ballot box as an attempt to display their public support and legitimacy. In an effort to boost turnout, Khamenei described the controlled elections as “the main pillar of the Islamic Republic” while Western media, including the BBC, were invited into Iran after years of barred access to report on the elections, in an attempt to project an image of normality and public support. Yet even if the official figures are to be believed, at 41%, the turnout for these elections was the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s 45-year history, and was even lower in larger cities such as Tehran, at 24%. The turnout in elections in Iran has been on a downward trend since 2020. Turnout in the last Parliamentary elections dropped to 42%, down from 62% in 2016, and in the 2021 Presidential elections, turnout had dropped to 48.8%, down from reportedly over 70% in 2017. Something noticeable is happening in Iran.

Far from being free or fair, elections in Iran are tightly controlled by the ‘Guardian Council’, a body of 12 clerics and lawyers, whom the ‘supreme’ leader effectively appoints. Though having controlled the list of candidates for almost all the elections since 1979, since 2020 the regime has been more heavy-handed in purging reformist and critical candidates from standing. This year the Council disqualified the moderate former President Hassan Rouhani who presided over the negotiation of the 2015 Nuclear Deal and was once thought to be a possible successor to Khamenei. Disqualifying former presidents has become a tradition in the Islamic Republic.

These exclusions are part of an effort to unite the regime and to do away with the ‘Conservative vs Reformist’ dichotomy ahead of what could be a power transition in Tehran, in case of Khamenei’s death. But they have also served to further undermine any sense of legitimacy or even public interest in the elections.

Despite efforts to homogenise the regime, which has stripped the Islamic Republic of any semblance of a competitive political culture, the future looks uncertain. The choice of Khamenei’s successor is not necessarily confined to the members of the Assembly of Experts. Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba, is unofficially considered by some as the chosen heir, while others predict the current President Raisi or even a cabal of Revolutionary Guard commanders could rule Iran after Khamenei. 

At the same time, there are rifts opening among the conservatives. Though the MPs for around half of Iran’s provinces are to be decided in runoffs in April, of those elected, the next Majles is to be made up of the even more hawkish, anti-western voices in Tehran, with many members associated with the Revolutionary Guards. Neither will there be any potential reformists in the Assembly of Experts, given Rouhani’s exclusion. With more hardliners, the next parliament could ramp up the rhetoric from Tehran on Israel and the West.

Nonetheless, Iran’s foreign policy (or arguably any matter of policy) is ultimately decided by Iran’s leader, who has adopted a more distanced tone of support for Hamas as part of its ‘axis of resistance’. Arguably the Majles has limited influence even on domestic legislation with the plethora of unelected quangos, the ‘Expediency Council’, the ‘Guardian Council’ and others. It has even less say on Iran’s foreign policy. The Majles chamber provides more of a sense of theatrics. For instance, when the Trump administration withdrew from the Nuclear Deal in 2018, Iranian MPs took to protesting and burning a US paper flag inside the chamber. Or when the same US administration designated Iran’s ‘Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation in 2019, Iranians MPs (whether conservative or reformist) donned IRGC uniforms in support of the Guards, which commands the regime’s proxies abroad and controls large parts of Iran’s economy. It will be particularly interesting to see how the Majles may respond to a second Trump Presidency.

More broadly though it is unlikely that the most recent elections will substantively change Iran’s foreign policy. Existing trends around the normalising of relations with its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, and the other so-called ‘Gulf monarchies’, excluding Bahrain, will continue. Even under the hardline Raisi government, backchannel talks with the Americans have continued, including as recently as January 2024. And while Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are worsening tensions, the Iranian regime’s survival instincts may hold it back from wider involvement.

Even if the recent elections are unlikely to dramatically change Iran’s foreign policy with any considerable implications for the UK, it has exposed the Iranian regime’s weaknesses. While the Iranian regime is considered an important player in the Middle East and beyond, at home the regime grows increasingly unpopular just at the moment of a potential power transition. That is well worth paying attention to.

Ali Khosravi

Ali Khosravi is a former BFPG intern