Election runoff in Iran: But to what end?

Two candidates each are vying for the 68 remaining seats, and the AP indicates that 58 of those candidates are considered to be part of the “reformist” faction. The international media widely declared that this faction, affiliated with current President Hassan Rouhani and former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, had achieved a major victory in the national elections. But members of this faction have reportedly said that they still need 40 additional seats in order to have the upper hand over conservatives and principalists in the forthcoming legislative session.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran and other staunch critics of the Iranian political and governmental systems dispute both of these points, claiming that Rouhani/Rafsanjani faction is reformist in name only and that even if it were not, the hardline Supreme Leader and Guardian Council would never allow reformist legislation to move forward anyway.

Even in the midst of reports about widespread reformist victories, international media outlets acknowledged that the Guardian Council had used its vetting process to bar the vast majority of truly reformist candidates from even standing for election. In at least one case after the February elections, the council announced that it was nullifying the electoral victory of one female reformist parliamentary candidate.

Nevertheless, some commentators, mainly located in the West, have maintained hope that the wide-ranging victories for this list could give Rouhani the political clout that he needs to implement the reforms that have eluded the Iranian population during his first three years in office. Others, however, especially the Iranian resistance, doubt that the implementation of genuine reform was ever on Rouhani’s agenda, given his longstanding career as a regime insider.

To the credit of his reformist image, Rouhani has placed himself at odds with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other hardliners in a variety of public statements. 

Tehran’s chief of police recently announced that 7,000 undercover operatives would be looking for instances of improper veiling and other violations of supposed Islamic law and moral standards, and would report those violations to official morality police units. Asked about the plan by Iranian state media, Rouhani suggested that such monitoring disrespects the “people’s dignity and personality,” and that he would stand by promises to safeguard civic freedoms.

The trouble with such remarks, for Rouhani’s reformist detractors and his erstwhile supporters, is that they have not been backed up with action. Many pro-reform political groups, international human rights organizations, and other observers have repeatedly pointed out that with the exception of concluding nuclear negotiations with the West, Rouhani has failed to take recognizable, concrete steps to move forward with any of his liberal promises.

Consequently, stories of human rights violations continue to emerge from the Islamic Republic on a regular basis, necessitating last month’s renewal of the mandate for the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran.

In addition to the UN Human Rights Council, various other international organizations are noticeably striving to keep focus on Iran’s human rights record under the Rouhani administration, which has presided over a 25-year high in the rate of executions, totaling to nearly 1,000 hangings in 2015 alone.

Political imprisonment and the repression of dissent also remain as a prevalent focus of these international groups. Prominent among them is Amnesty International, which recently issued a statement decrying the Iranian regime once again for its treatment of imprisoned artist and human rights activist Atena Farghadani.

After Farghadani was charged with a series of vague political crimes including “gathering and colluding against national security,” “insulting members of parliament,” and “spreading propaganda,” the judiciary threatened to separately charge her with “non-adultery illegitimate relations” because she had shaken hands with her male lawyer.

Her initial arrest was based upon a single drawing which she posted to Facebook, depicting Iranian officials as animals as a protest against policies that restricted women’s rights and access to birth control. She has been sentenced to 13 years in prison and has thus become one of several examples of the ongoing and arguably escalating repression under Rouhani’s supposedly reformist government. Farghadani’s case also illustrates that some of the clearest examples of this repression are directed against reformist political attitudes, through channels such as the Revolutionary Guard and the judiciary, which are independent of the elected government.