Background Briefing

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II. Mechanisms of Exclusion

Parliamentary and presidential elections in Iran take place in two stages. The first stage is the vetting of candidates through a qualification process conducted by the Guardian Council. Only candidates deemed qualified are allowed to campaign and to compete in the elections. In effect, the qualification procedure allows the Guardian Council to appoint the candidates running for office. The second stage involves direct ballot by the electorate to choose from among the appointed candidates.

Guardian Council

Iran’s Guardian Council is a body of twelve religious jurists: the Supreme Leader appoints six of them; the other six are nominated by the Judiciary and confirmed by parliament. The Guardian Council is the most powerful non-elected body within Iran’s system of governance and is effectively an extension of the unaccountable rule of the Supreme Leader. The Council’s sweeping powers include interpretation of the Constitution, supervision of elections and the vetting of legislation passed by the parliament.

The Constitution defines the Guardian Council’s duties. Article 94 of the Constitution requires the Council to review legislation passed by the parliament:

All legislation passed by the parliament must be sent to the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council must review it within a maximum of ten days from its receipt with a view to ensuring its compatibility with the criteria of Islam and the Constitution. If it finds the legislation incompatible, it will return it to the parliament for review. Otherwise the legislation will be deemed enforceable.

The Guardian Council frequently wields its veto power in order to control the political direction of the country and to make sure that legislation coincide with the Council’s political agenda. Between 2000 and 2002 alone, the Guardian Council used its veto power over fifty times to strike down bills passed by the parliament.11 In 2002, for example, the Guardian Council vetoed a bill passed by the parliament aimed at limiting the practice of torture and the use of forced confessions in criminal trials. The Council said the bill was against the principles of Islam because it would limit the authority of judges to adjudicate on the admissibility of confessions.12

Prior to the 2004 parliamentary elections, the Council vetoed legislation which would have curbed the Council’s arbitrary power to disqualify candidates. The bill was intended to amend the election law and require the Guardian Council to reinstate all disqualified candidates unless their exclusion could be supported by legal documentation. In response to the Council’s veto, lawmaker Rajabali Mazroi stated that the Council was dedicated to “imposing brazen dictatorship.”13

Article 98 of the Constitution provides the Council “the authority of the interpretation of the Constitution.”14 The Guardian Council is also responsible for “supervising” presidential and parliamentary elections. Article 99 of the Constitution states that:

The Guardian Council has the responsibility of supervising the elections of the Assembly of Experts for Leadership, the President of the Republic, the parliament, and the direct recourse to popular opinion [moraje’ be array-e omumi] and referenda.15

The Guardian Council is the most powerful and unaccountable body controlling the election process: the ultimate decision with regard to the candidates’ qualifications belongs to the Council.

The arbitrary and discriminatory nature of disqualifications by the Guardian Council during the seventh parliamentary elections of 2004 even led election officials, as well as the Interior Ministry officials, to protest these decisions. Sayyed Mahmoud Mir Lowhi, the Interior Ministry’s deputy for parliamentary affairs, said, “the Interior Ministry is gravely concerned that baseless cases have been built [by the Guardian Council] against many former parliament members and even former ministers [who registered as candidates].” He added that “the collection and analysis of information regarding the candidates should pass through several levels of expertise.  The disqualification process can not depend on rumors and innuendos.”16

The director of the elections bureau in Marand district of Eastern Azarbaijan province, named only as Taghavi, protested the Guardian Council’s decisions to disqualify candidates, saying, “The Guardian Council was not established so that its members can decide in place of the people and hand pick parliamentary deputies.”17

Mohammad Jahromi, the spokesperson for the central Supervision Committee, announced the reasons for disqualifications during the seventh parliamentary elections of 2004 as:

12.5 percent financial corruption, 13.5 percent moral corruption, 14.5 percent sympathy towards or membership in counter-revolutionary groups, 13.5 percent lacking belief in principles of Islam, 6.8 percent publication of untrue statements and disturbing public opinion, 15.7 percent having ill repute, 6.5 percent having acted against national security, 16.5 percent lacking belief in the Constitution.18

The Ministry of Interior’s chief counsel responded in a letter to reasons given by the Guardian Council for disqualifications:

Making libelous statements, publication of untrue statements, or propaganda against the Islamic Republic is not part of the disqualifying conditions stated in Article 30 [of the Parliamentary Election Law]…One of the reasons given for disqualifying candidates by the Guardian Council is “acting against the national security.” As long as there is no definite judicial sentence to this effect against a candidate, the candidate can not be disqualified based on unsubstantiated claims…According to the present law, the only two illegal organizations are Komoleh and the Kurdish Democratic Party. Other than these two, we do not have any other illegal organizations. Thus there is no legal basis for disqualifying candidates due to their sympathies or membership in other groups, except for the two noted above; the decision to disqualify candidates on such grounds is illegal.19

Qualification Criteria for Parliamentary Candidates

The first step for an aspiring candidate is to register with the Interior Ministry. In conjunction with the Guardian Council, the Interior Ministry investigates the qualification of each registered candidate. According to Article 28 of the Parliamentary Election Law:20

At the time of registration, each candidate must fulfill the criteria stated below:

1. Practical belief in the Islamic faith and the sacred order [nizam-e moghadas] of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

2. Citizen of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

3. Declaration of loyalty to the progressive principle of the absolute rule of the Jurisconsult and to the Constitution.

4. Minimum of a high school diploma or its equivalent.

5. Absence of ill repute in the election district.

6. Physical health to the extent of possessing the blessings of sight, hearing, and faculty of speech.

7. Between thirty and seventy-five years of age.

The investigation into the candidate’s background begins with the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council requesting information from various government agencies:

After obtaining details of each volunteer [candidate], the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council will compile a complete list on a daily basis and will send it to the Intelligence Ministry, the Public Prosecutor, the Bureau of Registry (Sazeman-e Sabt-e Ahval), the Bureau of Identity Verification (Edareh Tashkhis Hoviaat), and the International Police in order to study their background and in relation to fulfilling conditions stated in this law. The above authorities [Intelligence Ministry, the Public Prosecutor, the Bureau of Registry, the Bureau of Identity Verification and the International Police] are responsible to provide the results of their investigation along with relevant documents to the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council within five days.21

In each electoral district, the Interior Ministry forms an executive committee within six days of the start of the registration period.22 These local executive committees report to a provincial executive committee that itself operates under the authority of a central Executive Committee in Tehran. Prior to the start of the election period, the Guardian Council appoints a parallel set of “supervision committees.” These committees are also arranged in a vertical structure, with a central Supervision Committee in Tehran overseeing a provincial supervision committee that in turn controls local supervision committees in each district.

The Interior Ministry forwards the information on each candidate from the above-mentioned government agencies to the local executive committees. The local executive committees also investigate the candidate’s background in his or her neighborhood and make a recommendation regarding the candidate’s qualification. The local supervision committees assess these recommendations while undertaking their own parallel investigations. The local supervision committees pass their findings and decisions to the provincial and central supervision committees. The Guardian Council takes the final decision with regard to each candidate’s qualification. In case of differences between the recommendation of the central Executive Committee and that of the Supervision Committee, the Guardian Council is the ultimate arbitrator:

The Guardian Council announces its final decision regarding the confirmation or rejection of each volunteer’s qualification to the Interior Ministry twenty days after the central Supervision Committee has declared its definitive viewpoint.23

Approbatory Supervision

“Approbatory supervision,” which applies to parliamentary candidates, is the most arbitrary and intrusive mechanism exerted by the Guardian Council over the election process. The Parliamentary Election Law gives the Guardian Council absolute powers of supervision over all aspects of the election process. Article 3 of the law states:

The Guardian Council has the responsibility of supervision of the parliamentary [majlis showray-e Islami] elections. This supervision is approbatory, general, and applicable to every phase of all matters related to the elections.24

 “Approbatory supervision” is an arbitrary and vaguely defined authority. The Guardian Council can disqualify candidates even if they fulfill all qualifications specified in the Parliamentary Election Law. In essence, “approbatory supervision” allows the Guardian Council to ignore or overrule the entire qualification process outlined in the election law.

Mohsen Sazegara, an Iranian dissident who was disqualified as a presidential candidate in 2001, considers “approbatory supervision” as the ultimate means for the Guardian Council to control the election process and effectively to choose who becomes a candidate. He told Human Rights Watch:

According to the Guardian Council’s interpretation, “approbatory supervision” allows the Council’s members to decide what is expedient in their view and, based on this subjective notion, they give their blessing to qualified candidates. Thus the Guardian Council’s oversight is not just based on the legal code defining the criteria for candidacy. A candidate could fulfill all these conditions and still be disqualified based on the Council’s notion of expediency.25 

Sazegara further considers the Guardian Council’s decisions as a reflection and extension of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s power.

The Guardian Council is appointed by the Leader. What happens in practice is that the candidates are vetted through the supervision of the Leader before they are introduced to the public. We witnessed this reality in the February 2004 parliamentary elections where more than three thousand candidates were summarily disqualified by the Guardian Council and due to the Leader’s discretion.26


Mehrangiz Kar, a prominent Iranian lawyer and human rights defender, also characterized the “approbatory supervision” powers of the Guardian Council as a major impediment in free and fair participation of all Iranians to become candidates in elections. She told Human Rights Watch:

The Guardian Council’s decisions are based upon its own political and factional leanings. The existence of “approbatory supervision” makes it impossible for Iranians from differing political viewpoints to participate in the political process.27

Qualification Criteria for Presidential Elections

As with the parliamentary elections, persons wishing to stand as candidates in the presidential election are subject to a stringent qualification process controlled by the Guardian Council.

Article 115 of the Constitution describes the requirements for the presidential candidates:

The President must be elected from among religious and political personalities [rejal] possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin; Iranian nationality; administrative capacity and resourcefulness; a good past-record; trustworthiness and piety; convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country.28

The vetting of presidential candidates rests with the Guardian Council, according to article 118 of the Constitution:

Responsibility for the supervision of the election of the President lies with the Guardian Council, as stipulated in Article 99.29

In addition to the Guardian Council, the Supreme Leader must also explicitly approve the candidacy of presidential aspirants, except in the case of an incumbent president running for reelection.30

[11] “Iran parliament backs reformist bill,” BBC News, November 10, 2002.

[12] “Iran: Veto on Torture Bill Condemned,” Human Rights Watch, June 12, 2002.

[13] “Rebuff by hard-liners casts doubt on Iranian Election,” Associated Press, January 26, 2004.

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

[15] Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran: Astan Razavi Ghods Publications, 2000. The Assembly of Experts for Leadership is an elected body of clerics responsible for choosing the Supreme Leader, a lifetime appointment.

[16] “Interior Ministry worried about serious cases brought against well-known personalities,” Iranian Labor News Agency, December 28, 2003.

[17] “Taghavi says the Guardian Council’s actions beyond law and subjective,” Tabriz News, January 14, 2004.

[18] “Central Supervision Committee spokesman announces reasons for disqualifications,” Fars News Agency, January 9, 2004.

[19] “Interior Ministry’s Chief Council responds to disqualifications,” Iranian Students News Agency, February 2, 2004. Komoleh and the Kurdish Democratic Party are Kurdish political parties that have waged armed resistance against the government.

[20] Available from the Interior Ministry website:

[21] Article 48 of the Parliamentary Election law, downloaded from the Interior Ministry website:

[22] Candidates have a seven day period to register with the Interior Ministry. This period is announced publicly by the interior Ministry during each election.

[23] Article  52, Amendment 3 of the Parliamentary Election law, downloaded from the Interior Ministry website:

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

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohsen Sazegara, April 11, 2005.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Human Rights Watch interview with Mehrangiz Kar, April 11, 2005.

[28] Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran: Astan Razavi Ghods Publications, 2000. According to Article 12 of the Constitution: “The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Ja'fari school, and this principle will remain eternally immutable.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] According to Article 110: “The suitability of candidates for the presidency of the Republic, with respect to the qualifications specified in the Constitution, must be confirmed before elections take place by the Guardian Council; and, in the case of the first term [Presidency], by the Supreme Leader.”

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