The vast numbers of candidates are perhaps unsurprising in light of the fact that, according to a Press TV guide to Iranian political factions, the country has 240 separate political parties, none of which have a dominant role in Iranian politics. Although successful candidates may come from virtually any party, those parties generally fall into the broad categories of “principlist” or “reformist,” or otherwise fall somewhere between the two general factions, as moderates.
In its guide, Press TV, an English-language arm of the Iranian regime’s state media, sought to portray the differences between principlists and reformists as relating primarily to economic policy and different levels of emphasis on “Islamic values” and structural problems. Notably, the articles description of each faction avoids reference to issues like human rights or political repression. In his successful presidential campaign four years ago, Hassan Rouhani made some reference to these issues, promising for instance to release the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from their indefinite house arrest. But neither this nor other progressive-sounding promises have come to fruition.
The Rouhani administration characterizes itself as moderate, and this fact might suggest that there is a reformist faction that would be more earnest about pursuing domestic reforms that are unrelated to the economy or the structure of the existing government and laws. But in the previous election cycle, most reformists dropped out of the race and threw their weight behind Rouhani in order to minimize the chances of a principlist victory. Although many reformists have since grown disillusioned with the Rouhani administration, it appears that the same strategy will be utilized in the election scheduled for May 19.
This highlights the fact that there are substantial limits on the prospects for genuine social reform within the Islamic Republic. These limits are made stronger by the fact that regardless of the number or the affiliations of persons registering their presidential candidacy, there is a chance of their candidacy being blocked by the Guardian Council, which is comprised of 12 people appointed by the supreme leader and the judiciary.
It is impossible to say how many of the more than 638 candidates for the current campaign will be disqualified. But it is well understood that certain kinds of candidates will not make the cut. In many such cases, it is quite likely that the candidates in question registered themselves only as a protest or a bid for publicity. According to The Iran Project, 21 women registered as presidential candidates. Unquestionably, all of them will be barred from taking part in the actual campaign, which will take place between April 28 and May 17, after the Guardian Council makes its final determinations. The same is true of the unspecified number of religious and ethnic minorities who attempted to register, since the constitution of the Islamic Republic calls for expressed loyalty and adherence to Islam and the principle of absolute clerical rule.
In an apparent effort to put a progressive spin on the registration numbers, Iran Front Page News reported that at the same time that hundreds of people registered as presidential candidates, an impressive-sounding 18,000 women registered as candidates for city and village councils throughout the country. Women are not explicitly barred from holding these positions, although they are certainly discouraged. Iran Front Page boasts that the latest numbers represent the highest ever level of female registration, but it also admits that the 18,000 women are only 6.3 percent of the total number of registrants, up from 5.4 percent in the previous elections.
The country’s most recent parliamentary elections also saw not only higher female registration, but also the highest number of women serving on the legislative body since the founding of the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, women only claimed 17 seats out of 290, and one was disqualified by the Guardian Council after winning election, because of allegations that she had shaken hands with a man to whom she was not related while traveling abroad. Physical contact of any kind between members of the opposite sex is a crime in the Islamic Republic.
While women’s voices may be a larger part of local Iranian politics in the wake of the May elections, those voices have traditionally been all but absent. Meanwhile, the presidency remains off limits to Iranian women, and arbitrary barriers remain in place for women seeking any high office. The reformist faction of Iranian politics is either unable to change this situation or uninterested in doing so, since they have generally attached themselves to the Rouhani administration, which has eschewed reform in numerous areas including women’s rights.