Background Briefing

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I. Summary and Recommendations

On June 17, 2005, Iran holds its ninth presidential election, as well as mid-term elections for the seventh parliament. As in all previous elections, candidates wishing to compete in these elections must first win approval by the powerful Guardian Council, a twelve-man body accountable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, an unelected figure who represents the highest political authority in the country.

As a party to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is obligated to allow its citizens to compete as candidates in elections without “unreasonable restrictions.” Iran’s current parliamentary and presidential election laws incorporate discriminatory criteria that restrict the participation of many candidates in the electoral process.

Furthermore, Iran’s election laws grant sweeping and arbitrary powers, known as “approbatory supervision [nizarat-e istesvabi],” to the Guardian Council. “Approbatory supervision” allows the Guardian Council to subjectively disqualify even candidates who satisfy the discriminatory criteria stated in the election laws.

The Guardian Council has consistently approved only candidates already associated with the ruling elite, known in Iranian political jargon as the “insiders” [khodi]. In all previous elections, both parliamentary and presidential, “outsiders” [gheir-khodi] who were not part of the ruling circle, were excluded from competing.1

On May 22, the Guardian Council announced that only six of the 1,014 candidates who registered for the upcoming presidential elections were qualified to be placed on the ballot. Five of these candidates, known to adhere closely to the political views of the Guardian Council, included Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ahmadinejad, former radio and television chief Ali Larijani, former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai, former police chief Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The sixth was former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi. Although Karrubi has differed with the Guardian Council in recent years on some issues, he too has been an “insider” for the past twenty-six years.

These selections demonstrated that the Guardian Council’s definition of acceptable candidates is more restrictive than ever. The Council, for instance, disqualified two well-known reformists, former minister of higher education Mostafa Moin and Vice President Mohsen Mehralizadeh. On May 23, on the instructions of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the Guardian Council qualified Moin and Mehralizadeh. All candidates who hold distinctly alternative political viewpoints to those of the ruling elite, including all women candidates, remained disqualified.

The Guardian Council’s vetting process effectively renders Iranian elections into a two-stage process. During the first stage, the Guardian Council exercises unlimited and unchecked powers in appointing candidates who may be on the ballot. The second stage is the actual voting, in which the electorate’s choices are restricted to these pre-approved candidates.

Iran is a party to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 25 of ICCPR requires that “every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”2

The required qualifications stated in Iran’s election laws clearly place “unreasonable restrictions” on the ability of Iranians to be elected to political office. Article 28 of the Parliamentary Election Law of 1995 states that the candidates must have “practical belief in the Islamic faith and the sacred order [nizam-e moghadas] of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”3 It further requires them to declare their loyalty “to the progressive principle of the absolute rule of the Jurisconsult [velayat faqih motlaqeh].”4 This doctrine is developed only in Shi`a Islam, and even among Shi`a it is far from universally accepted. It advocates dominance of religious clerics in holding supreme political powers and is the rationale for the position of the Supreme Leader. Presidential candidates must demonstrate “convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country.”5 The Guardian Council arbitrarily determines what constitutes “practical belief” and “convinced belief.”

In addition, the Guardian Council has interpreted the Presidential Election Law to disqualify all female candidates who have registered in previous presidential elections.6 None of the eighty-nine women who registered their candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections were allowed to stand in the election.

Finally, the Guardian Council enjoys powers known as “approbatory supervision.” This allows Guardian Council members to disqualify even those candidates who meet the stated requirements. “Approbatory supervision” is a vaguely defined authority by which the Council can arbitrarily exclude candidates who do not hold political positions acceptable to the Council.

Iranian election laws also discriminate on the basis of religion and religious belief. Parliamentary and presidential candidates are expected to declare their loyalty to the doctrine of absolute rule of the Jurisconsult [velayat faqih motlaqeh]. Mohsen Kadivar, a Shi`a scholar and cleric, has identified nine distinct theories ofgovernment among  Shi`a scholars; velayat faqih motlaqeh—absolute rule—is just one of them.7 Prominent Shi`a clerics, such as Ayatollah Sistani, do not subscribe to the theory of velayat faqih even in its most general formulation.8

The exclusionary and discriminatory nature of Iran’s elections was evident during the parliamentary elections in February 2004. Then the Guardian Council disqualified 3,605 candidates representing more than forty-four percent of registered candidates nationwide.9 In Tehran, the Council disqualified fifty-two percent of the candidates. In an unprecedented move, the Guardian Council disqualified eighty-seven sitting parliamentary deputies.10

In sum, Iran’s election laws make meaningful participation of all Iranians in the political process impossible. Iran’s elections will be meaningful and in accordance with international human rights standards only when both of these fundamental structural issues—discriminatory election laws and the Guardian Council’s arbitrary powers of exclusion—are addressed.

Recommendations to the Government of Iran

  • Allow candidates to stand for parliamentary and presidential elections without discrimination based on gender, religious belief, political opinion, or belief.
  • Revoke the Guardian Council’s authority to select candidates for public office or to interfere in the election process.
  • Inform candidates who are barred from standing in elections of the reasons for their disqualification in writing, which should be based on clear legal criteria instituted through a transparent process.
  • Provide timely legal recourse for candidates to challenge any disqualification.

[1] Khodi and gheir-khodi literally mean “of us” and “not of us,” respectively.

[2] International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, signed by Iran on April 4, 1968 and ratified on June 24, 1975. Article 2.1 of ICCPR states that: “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

[3] Provision one of Article 28 of the Parliamentary Election law, downloaded from the Interior Ministry website:

[4] Provision three of Article 28 of the Parliamentary Election Law, downloaded from the Interior Ministry website:

[5] Article   115 of the Constitution. Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran: Astan Razavi Ghods Publications, 2000.

[6]“Need for a new interpretation of political rejal,” BBC Persian, October 24, 2004.

[7] Mohsen Kadivar, Nazariehay-e Dowlat dar Fiqh Shi`a.  Tehran: Nashr Ney, 2001.

[8] Ayatollah Sistani, an Iranian-born Shi`a scholar, is the highest ranking Shi`a cleric in Iraq, where he has lived for many decades. He enjoys a widespread following both in Iran and Iraq.

[9] “Forty-four percent of candidates disqualified,” Iranian Students News Agenc, January 12, 2004.

[10] “Interior Minister says elections not legitimate,” Iranian Students News Agency, 31 January 2004.

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