A double ballot is scheduled to take place in Iran on Friday, March 1. In a country where power remains monopolized by the mullahs, what is the true significance of these elections? This Is Beirut contacted Bernard Hourcade, director of the CeRMI (Centre de recherche sur le monde iranien), to answer these questions.

On Friday, March 1, about 61 million out of 85 million Iranians are called to go to the polls, for the first election since the protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in 2022. At stake is the renewal of two organs of Iranian political life: the Iranian Parliament, as well as the members of the Assembly of Experts.

A ‘Debating’ Parliament

With 290 representatives elected for four years, Iran’s Parliament is the legislative body of the country. In practice, its power remains subject to the Guardian Council, a body that combines the functions of the Constitutional Council and the electoral commission directly answering to the office of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution.

This council is notably responsible for validating candidacies which, until the beginning of the decade, were generally from two political movements: reformist or conservative. After the invalidation of the candidacies of thousands of reformists in the 2020 legislative elections, these elections now mainly oppose conservatives and ultra-conservatives. The former advocate a certain pragmatism, while the latter are very attached to the ideology of the regime and are hostile to any dialogue with Western countries, both internally and externally.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (C) addresses lawmakers about his draft finance bill, at Iran’s Parliament in Tehran, January 22, 2023. (Atta KENARE, AFP)

But according to Bernard Hourcade, parliament “is more of a debating chamber” than an effective legislative entity. “It is a very good indicator of the political balance of power in Iran,” he insists, in the sense that the population, “which criticizes even the figure of the Supreme Leader,” is silenced by repression. It is a reminder that the government remains accountable to the Supreme Leader and that the Iranian Parliament is merely a façade.

The Assembly of Experts, A ‘Quiet’ Chamber

Much less known is the Assembly of Experts which has a very different function. Elected for eight years, its 88 members—exclusively composed of religious figures—are responsible for appointing and supervising the Supreme Leader, or even removing him from office. It powers have never been applied in principle, as the Assembly of Experts has so far refrained from criticizing the Supreme Leader. Just like in Parliament, reformist elements were sidelined by the Guardian Council, as in the case of former President Hassan Rouhani.

At first glance, the March 1 election could be of particular importance. Indeed, the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, will reach the advanced age of 85 in April next year. It is therefore not an excluded possibility that this assembly may have to designate his successor.

Iranian Assembly of Experts members attend a session in Tehran, March 12, 2019. (Atta KENARE, AFP)

Nevertheless, “This assembly is quiet; there is nothing to expect from it,” comments Hourcade, who added that “the election of the next leader will not take place within its walls.” He also stated that the question of succession remains, at present, “slightly overestimated,” as Ali Khamenei remains able to lead. Rumors circulating about his health condition have so far proven to be unfounded.

Supreme Leader and IRGC Office, Cores of Iranian Power

Real power is actually held by the office of the Supreme Leader. Responding to questions from Le Grand Continent magazine on February 26, Ali Vaez, a professor at Georgetown University and president of the Iran project at the Belgian think tank International Crisis Group, describes it as a “shadow government,” bringing together around 5,000 people. Its power is overestimated, according to Hourcade, who nevertheless recognizes its importance and, above all, its opacity.

At present, Ali Khamenei remains at the heart of power. “Khamenei benefits from exceptional experience and authority,” Vaez insists, stemming from his management of the country which began in the 1980s, when he was president. From oil production to the war with Iraq, he has indeed gained experience on many fronts.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, February 28, 2024, at a meeting with young people who can vote for the first time, ahead of the March 1 elections, in Tehran. (KHAMENEI.IR, AFP)

Conversely, for the researcher, it is the internal power dynamics within the office of the Supreme Leader that will determine the identity of Khamenei’s successor, which could potentially lead to the weakening of the post of Supreme Leader in favor of members of his office. An office where the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is also very present and which Vaez considers as the other institution holding real power. However, Hourcade does not consider that they hold all the power. “It is a social group now present at all levels of power, all current leaders are close to it,” he insists. The real confrontation is more between the pragmatic (conservatives) and the ideological (ultra-conservatives).

Sizeable Stakes In Store

The stakes following this election are “enormous,” according to Bernard Hourcade, who cites a disastrous economic situation, relations with Washington in a similar state and, of course, the situation in the Middle East. Nevertheless, “It is not a major step and there is no immediate stake in view of the current situation,” he adds, given the real power of the institutions concerned.

The first challenge of the ballot lies in the mobilization of Iranians. According to initial estimates, the turnout could fall below the 40% mark, despite massive encouragement from the authorities to vote. By way of comparison, the 2020 legislative elections saw participation painfully rise to 42.75%. In practice, this will mainly be influenced by local issues, Hourcade considers. As for the second challenge, it will mainly be to see which force will prevail between conservatives and ultra-conservatives.


A woman walks past an election campaign billboard bearing the portrait of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the Iranian holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, on February 20, 2024. (Atta KENARE, AFP)

On the other hand, the outcome of the ballot “will not impact foreign policy, which is subject to consensus in Iran,” the researcher declares to This Is Beirut. For him, both conservatives and ultra-conservatives have “only one fear, that of a massive war with the United States,” the regime being aware that such a development could bring it down. It is precisely for this purpose that it tries to control its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon.

“Iran’s main priority is to defend the Islamic Republic and promote its development as a stable regional power,” Hourcade adds, insisting that “the Israel-Hamas war is untimely, forcing Iran to defend the Palestinians while having to accept compromises,” such as coexistence with Israel. Iran will then have to “negotiate a middle ground solution.”