The Decline of Clerics in the Iranian Majles

James W. Heslep


                “In the Islamic Republic, we will have a Majles that is elected by the people, and will not be a rubber-stamp Majles.”[1]  Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made this assertion in 1979.  Despite promises of a free voice for the people, the Islamic government of Iran has been the dominion of religious clerics since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.  The establishment of the Council of Guardians in the constitution of 1980 assured the dominance of clerics within Iranian politics.[2]  The Council of Guardians assumed oversight of the Majles and presidential elections in 1984, while Ayatollah Khomeini held power over the executive and judicial branches of the Iranian government.  Together, Khomeini and the Council of Guardians kept the Iranian government firmly under the rule of Muslim conservatives, particularly clerics.  As revolutionary fervor declined and the pains of war began to wear on the people of Iran through the 1980s, the popularity of conservative rule in Iran began to waver.  Upon Khomeini’s death in 1989, the grip of the conservatives lessened further.[3]  Although the power of the conservatives faded during the 1980s and 1990s, they remain reluctant to relinquish power at the start of the twenty-first century.

As a new generation of post-Revolutionary Iranians matures, movements for greater individual liberties and growing secularism threaten the position of the conservatives.  With the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, the Iranian people announced their dissatisfaction with fundamentalist rule.[4]  In the year 2000, the election of the Sixth Majles has confirmed the Iranian people’s desire to end the rule of the conservatives.  While the Majles has not wielded great political power in the years following the revolution, election results since 1980 suggest the emphatic backlash against conservative rule in the 2000 elections is the culmination of a pattern of discontent among the people of Iran.  This view is vividly illustrated through an examination of the number of clerics elected to the Iranian Majles since 1980.

            To understand the implications of Majles elections since the Islamic Revolution, it is necessary to examine the structure of Iranian elections as constructed by the Revolutionary constitution prior to the 1980 elections.  According to the election law of February 6, 1980, Iranian citizens age sixteen and older are eligible to vote.[5]  Approximately every four years, eligible citizens elect candidates to the 270 member Majles.  The voters select among all candidates meeting the qualifications set forth by the constitution:  candidates must be literate Iranian citizens between ages 25 and 85, with no record of “moral corruption,” and a profound belief in the tenets of the Islamic Revolution.[6]  To ensure the dominance of pro-Revolutionary politicians, the Council of Guardians screens the credentials of all prospective candidates.  Those candidates receiving an absolute majority are elected directly to the Majles, while those remaining move on to a later runoff election for the remaining seats.  While the attempts of conservative clerics to control the election process were initially successful, later elections challenged their authority.

The first Majles elections held in Iran after the Islamic Revolution occurred on March 14, 1980.[7]  Amidst the fervor of the Revolution, 6.1 million Iranians traveled to the polls to vote for the 2,500 candidates running for election to the Majles.[8]  The Islamic Republican Party (IRP), a party led by fundamentalist clerics, dominated the elections of 1980.[9]  The IRP took 131 of 216 seats in the First Majles.[10]  In total, clerics assumed 137 of the 216 Majles seats in 1980.[11]  These results meant that clerics made up an astounding 63% of representatives in the First Majles.  Although this number was disproportionate to the number of clerics in Iran, it must be remembered that the Iranian people were scarcely removed from the passions of the Islamic Revolution.  The Iranian people naturally gravitated toward the leaders of their recent revolution, handing the conservative clerics a resounding political victory.  While the power of the Islamic Revolution was immense in Iran, the people gradually came to question conservative rule.

            Four years later, the influence of conservative clerics over the people of Iran remained strong.  On April 15, and May 17, 1984, elections for the Second Majles took place.[12]  The Iranian people responded by electing 122 clerics to the Majles.[13]  This represented an eleven percent decrease in the number of clerics elected in comparison to the First Majles.  A number of factors occurred in the voting process between the 1980 and 1984 elections.  Prior to the elections, the First Majles decreased the voting age from 16 to 15.[14]  Also, the Council of Guardians acted as the oversight committee for the general election for the first time.[15] The assumption of election control by the Council of Guardians allowed for the elimination of liberal candidates prior to the election.[16]  The ongoing war with Iraq buoyed support for conservatives who successfully “waved the bloody shirt” prior to the election.  Perhaps the greatest influence precipitating the decrease in the election of clerics was an address made by Ayatollah Khomeini on February 29, 1984.  Khomeini told the people of Iran that they should not feel obligated to vote only for clerics.  Khomeini believed this practice to be an exclusionary one similar to the political manipulations of the Shah.[17]  The election created a turnover of 61% (164 members) within the Majles suggesting dissatisfaction among the people of Iran for the work of the First Majles.[18]  Although conservatives won the day, the drop in the election of clerics suggested a wavering of clerical rule.  While the drop in clerical participation in the Second Majles was not catastrophic, the results of the 1984 elections foreshadowed future events.

            As in 1984, the ongoing war with Iraq served as a backdrop to national elections in 1988.  In 1988, however, the war effected elections in almost every region of the country.  Massive Iraqi missile attacks reached Tehran in the three weeks prior to the April 7 elections.[19]  The intensity of the war with Iraq affected elections, resulting in a major victory for radical conservatives.  Surprisingly, the result of war-weary Iranians heading to the polls was another loss for clerics in the Majles.  In 1988, only 77 clerics took seats in the Third Majles, a decrease of over 36%.[20]  Although the intensification of the war may have created an anomaly with the election of more conservatives, the results suggest a further decrease in political satisfaction among the Iranian people.  Conservatives experienced a further decay in power with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in June 1989.  Khomeini, the charismatic leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, was the true force behind the reign of the clerics.  While his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proved capable, his popularity never rivaled that of Khomeini.  The death of Khomeini, a significant blow to clerical dominance, proved to be a decisive factor in the elections for the Fourth Majles in 1992.

The Majles elections of 1992 illustrate the significance of losing Khomeini.  Without Khomeini bolstering conservatism, Iranians began a push for reform.  Not only questions of national economic policy, but also issues of personal liberty began to arise in the political debates preceding the 1992 elections.[21]  At the polls, Iranians voiced their desire for change.  The April 7 elections proved to be an unbridled success for anti-radical politicians.  Moderates swept into the Majles promising economic reform.  The makeup of the Majles became younger and more secularly educated, while a record number of women took seats.[22]  Again, the power of the clerics slipped.  The Iranian people elected only 65 clerics to the Fourth Majles in 1992, a 4% decrease compared to the 1988 election.[23]  The defeat of the radicals and the continued decline in the number of clerics indicated that the people of Iran were tiring of conservative rule.  This trend intensified in the elections for the Fifth Majles in 1996.

By the 1996 general elections, the people of Iran reached a critical point in their desire for liberalization.  The ability of the Fourth Majles to pass moderate legislation suffered under the watch of the Council of Guardians, resulting in growing discontent among Iranians.  Elections for the Fifth Majles on March 8 and April 19 witnessed fierce competition between conservatives and moderates.  Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani led the moderate reformist push in the 1996 Majles elections.  Rafsanjani’s message of moderation appealed to the Iranian people.  Prior to the 1996 elections, Rafsanjani and his allies created the Servants of Construction—a loose political arrangement of moderate reformers hoping to create a coalition in the Fifth Majles.  In the elections, Rafsanjani’s Servants of Construction managed to acquire 100 seats.[24]  The clerics who once dominated the Majles found themselves with only 50 seats, a decrease of more than 5% since the previous election.[25]  The trend against conservatism continued after the 1996 elections, as the presidential election of 1997 yielded more progress for moderates.  Mohammad Khatami assumed the Presidency on promises of greater freedom for economic innovation, the liberalization of the press, and the removal of restrictions on personal liberty.  President Khatami quickly became a figure as wildly popular among Iran’s young people in the late 1990s as the Ayatollah Khomeini was in the late 1970s.  Although Khatami did not possess the political power to institute promised reforms, his message inspired the Iranian people, particularly the young, to press conservatives for the liberties they desired.

Following the astounding popularity of President Khatami, reformers seized commanding control of the Majles in the 2000 elections, further damaging the ability of clerics to dominate Iranian politics.  The initial results of the February 18 elections suggested a clear desire for reform among the people of Iran.  An estimated 80% of eligible voters turned out to support the reform movement of President Khatami.[26]  In the largest voting district of the country, Tehran, as many women were elected to the Sixth Majles as clerics.[27]  The moderate reforms of Rafsanjani have given way to demands for previously unheard of liberalization of the government and society.  This shift from moderation to liberalism is well illustrated by the performance of Rafsanjani in the 2000 elections.  Rafsanjani almost failed to win a seat in the Sixth Majles, finishing thirtieth on Tehran ballots.[28]  In the past three elections, the Majles has transformed from a stronghold of conservatism into a body comprised almost exclusively of moderate and liberal reformers.  Following the second round of elections, the number of clerics sitting in the Sixth Majles dropped precipitously, as reformers captured almost 70% of the seats.[29]  The people of Iran, beleaguered by the intervention of the conservative government, used their voices at the ballot box in an attempt to institute revolutionary changes.

            After examining the trend in election results since 1980, one must wonder what happened in Iran to dissipate the zeal of the Islamic Revolution in two decades.  A change in the social makeup of Iran offers a possible explanation for the rise of the reform movement.  Demographic changes that have occurred in Iran since the time of the Islamic Revolution are astounding and could account for the liberalization that has manifested itself in Majles elections.  In 1976, less than half of Iran’s inhabitants resided in urban areas.  As of 1996, the number of Iranians living in urban settings had increased to more than 61%.[30]  This growth has not been centered in a single region of the country; rather, it has occurred uniformly across Iran.  In 1976, only twenty-three cities held populations of more than 100,000.  By 1996, forty-seven cities had risen to a population of at least 100,000.[31]  The combination of rural migration and a natural population increase made the rapid rise of urbanization possible.  With so many Iranians living within the limits of urban areas, access to government programs, most notably education, has increased dramatically.  The literacy rate among Iranians ages six to twenty-four rose from 50% in 1976 to over 93% in 1996.[32]  The proliferation of education and its resulting social and political awareness surely contributed to increasing demands for political liberalization.  Also contributing to this explosion of political activism is the youth of the Iranian population.  The majority of Iran’s citizens were born after the 1979 Revolution.  Estimates suggest that half of the population of Iran is under age 30.[33]  The combination of these forces has produced a widely based push for greater liberalization of government and society.

            The results of the 2000 elections for the Sixth Majles are an exclamation point for the trend away from conservative rule in Iran.  While the media has treated the results of the 2000 elections as a major turning point in Iranian politics, in actuality, it is the culmination of a trend in Majles elections that has been repeated since 1984.  Each election since the first revolutionary election in 1980 has witnessed a drop in the number of clerics elected to the Majles.  Regardless of the underlying cause of liberalization in Iran, the Majles election results since 1980 reinforce the notion that the people of Iran are tired of the interference of the conservative regime.  Shahram Chubin eloquently described the political evolution of Iran since 1980, saying,

Gone is the automatic support for the regime and the assumption of its good intentions.  In part, this is the result of time and the graying of the original revolutionaries.  In part, it is the result of the corruption, broken promises, and blame-passing by the regime’s leaders, who hold everyone but themselves responsible for the regime’s failures.  The system has evolved, but not enough to accommodate the demands of society.[34]

The conservatives still in power, particularly the clerics controlling the Council of Guardians, will have a great impact on the success of the reform movement.  Yet despite their remaining power, the people of Iran have pushed open a door to reform that the conservatives are unlikely to close.

[1] Bahman Baktiari, Parliamentary Politics in Revolutionary Iran, (Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida Press, 1996), 62-63.

[2] Ibid, p. 62.

[3] Ibid, p. 174.

[4] Azadeh Kian-Thiebaut, “Political and Social Transformations in Post-Islamist Iran,” Middle East Report, 29 (1999): 12-16.

[5] Baktiari, p. 64.

[6] Ibid, p. 64.

[7] Ibid, p. 67.

[8] Ibid, p. 67.

[9] Ibid, p. 55-56.

[10] Ibid, p. 68.

[11] Ibid, p. 114.

[12] Ibid, p. 113.

[13] Ibid, p. 114.

[14] Ibid, p. 109.

[15] Ibid, p. 109.

[16] Ibid, p. 109.

[17] Ibid, p. 110.

[18] Ibid, p. 114.

[19] Ibid, p. 148.

[20] Sandra Mackey, The Iranians, (New York: Dutton Group, 1996), 349, and Interview with Nelson Warren, Iran Times, 8 March 2000.

[21] Baktiari, p. 185-216.

[22] Ibid, p. 218.

[23] Interview with Nelson Warren, Iran Times, 8 March 2000.

[24] “Iran Hardliners Lose Seats,” Guardian (London), 22 April 1996, 9.

[25] Interview with Nelson Warren, Iran Times, 8 March 2000.

[26] Howard Schneider, “Reform Win is Major Step for Iranian Democracy,” Washington Post, 21 February 2000, sec. A.

[27] “Dance Card for the Election,” Iran Times, 25 February 2000, 3.

[28] Howard Schneider, “Reformers Leading in Most Races in Tehran,” Washington Post, 22 February 2000, sec. A.

[29] Howard Schneider, “Reform Win is Major Step for Iranian Democracy,” Washington Post, 21 February 2000, sec. A.

[30] Kian-Thiebaut, Middle East Report, 12.

[31] Ibid, Middle East Report, 12.

[32] Ibid, Middle East Report, 12.

[33] Shahram Chubin, “Iran’s Strategic Predicament,” The Middle East Journal, 54, (Winter 2000), 16.

[34] Chubin, The Middle East Journal, 21.