Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

Elections Will Not Bring Change; Many Iranians Learned it the Hard Way

Today, June 28, some Iranians went to the polls to choose one of the candidates the Islamic Republic’s leadership has selected to replace Ebrahim Raisi. Experts have been speculating on who is going to be elected or what the implications will be on Iran’s foreign policy. These are the wrong questions to ask. Anyone pledging loyalty to the constitution, a “reformist,” a “moderate,” “a conservative,” or a “hardliner” is ultimately a hardliner by democratic standards. This is why many Iranians have lost hope in bringing about change through the ballot boxes and are boycotting elections. The question to ask, regardless of how difficult the response may be, is who wants to bring about democratic changes in Iran and how can we help them succeed? There is no easy path forward, but acknowledging the structural obstacles to change and searching for new ways forward is an essential first step.

The choice of the president may lead to minor shifts but, even in the best case scenario, it will fail to bring significant change to Iran. The core structure of Iran’s theocratic regime, where a Supreme Leader’s authority eclipses that of any president, will remain steadfastly intact. The founders of the Islamic Republic designed the system to ensure its own survival. In essence, Iran’s theocracy is designed to resist meaningful change. For over four decades, said Roya Boroumand, the Executive Director of Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC), unelected spiritual leaders and a cadre of old clerics and jurists – all men and all chosen by the Supreme Leader – have held tens of millions of Iranians as hostages in their own country.  

                   Graffiti on an Iranian building reads "forget about voting"

As explained in ABC’s 2009 report on elections in Iran, “Neither Free nor Fair," the law on political parties bans all groups except those who believe in the founding principles and constitution of the Islamic Republic, which blatantly violate all fundamental freedoms. A vetting process by the Guardian Council rigorously filters candidates to presidential and parliamentary elections based on background, religious beliefs, and loyalty to the regime. Even the behavior and dress of their family members can disqualify them. 

In the hands of this unelected and unaccountable panel of clerics lies the power to say who can run, how elections are conducted and disputes resolved, and veto the laws passed by the parliament (Majles). Its mission – by law – is to safeguard the main tenets of the Islamic Republic regardless of what Iranians want. Insiders who advocate for meaningful legal and institutional changes are swiftly marginalized, imprisoned, or worse. 

No candidate, including those running in today's presidential election, can or will try to alter this entrenched system. Those who run for office have agreed to implement laws that treat women and religious minorities as second class citizens, punish with death individuals for their sexual preferences or religious beliefs, severely curtail citizens’ rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly, and call for exporting the revolution. 

The Iranians who opposed these laws and principles in the years following the 1979 revolution, and they were more significant in numbers than Iran’s leader claimed, have paid for their opposition with their lives. The younger generations have tried to bring about changes, including through the ballot boxes and protests, and have been arbitrarily and summarily or extrajudicially executed, imprisoned and tortured, raped, and forced into exile. The Islamic Republic’s treatment of women has been qualified as gender persecution and apartheid.

With the nationwide protests, December 2017, November 2019 and the 2022 Women, Life, Freedom, among others, an increasing number of citizens have faced the harsh reality that they cannot eliminate the obstacles to change with their votes. Hence their low participation in the 2024 parliamentary elections and their multiple calls for a boycott of the June 28 election. Teachers, university and high school students, political prisoners, mothers of protesters killed across the country including in Kurdistannurses, union activists, harmed protesters and families of killed protesters and artists have published statements to say that elections have not led to change in the past and insist on the lack of legitimacy of “farcical” “elections or election circus.” Our vote, said a students’ statement, is for “Women, Life, Freedom.” Mersedeh Shahinkar, who lost an eye in the Women, Life, Freedom protest, wrote on her Instagram account: “your vote is a finger in our bloody eyes.” 

We may never know the real percentage of participation in today’s election, but by some accounts, voters are few in many polling places. The authorities have extended the voting time to midnight, perhaps in the hope that cooler evening weather may help increase the number of voters. 

       Female Students at Allameh University Protesting Against the Elections

Citizens’ anger and their calls to boycott elections in general is understandable. Iran's rulers have been ruthless with those who challenge their authority and legitimacy. The crimes they committed during the Women, Life, Freedom protest have been thoroughly investigated in the damning report of the UN Fact Finding Mission on Iran (FFMI) which was created in response to the brutal state's response to protests in 2022. The FFMI experts who concluded that Iran has committed crimes against humanity, also made recommendations relating to the Islamic Republic’s laws. 

  • Repeal vaguely worded criminal offenses/laws that criminalize and punish those exercising their human rights

  • Repeal laws related to mandatory hijab and disband the morality police

  • Repeal laws that discriminate on grounds of sex, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.

  • Repeal laws allowing use of lethal force in circumstances that do not meet international standards

  • Raise the minimum age for criminal responsibility and ensure equal treatment of boys and girls

  • Uphold prohibition of torture in line with international law, and introduce necessary safeguards

  • Ensure due process, including access to a lawyer of one’s choosing at all stages from time of arrest

  • Repeal legislation, particularly in the Islamic Penal Code, which sanctions punishments amounting to torture, including flogging and amputation

  • Condemn sexual and gender based violence (SGBV); repeal laws that deter victims from reporting SGBV or that contain discriminatory standards of proof

  • Ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and its Optional Protocol, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and their respective Optional Protocols

The structural obstacle to democratic change has also been reported by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, who has noted in his August 2023 report "that the existing constitutional and political framework of the Islamic Republic of Iran presents considerable limitations, with the denial of the right to democratic participation in the political and public life for Iranian citizens.” 

The right to participate in one's country's political life is a universal and fundamental right. Unless corrected, laws and practices that blatantly infringe on the Iranian people's ability to determine their own political destiny will continue to silence Iranians who believe in a democratic and human rights-oriented political system and perpetuate the cycle of violence inside and outside Iran. 

Those who fight to change the Islamic Republic’s laws, and Iran’s political system, and oppose its hostile foreign policy, have no say in the conduct of the state because of structural obstacles and they rarely make headlines. But they are the opportunity for change. To seize this opportunity, the international community has to look beyond the traditional power centers and the Islamic Republic’s factions. It must stop hoping for interlocutors who may smile and speak to them, because they will not remove the structural obstacles to a democratic and stable Iran or stop hostage takings and the use of violence outside the country. Instead, It has to acknowledge and stress the political impasse in the Islamic Republic and give visibility to Iranians who are fighting for their fundamental human rights, including the right to determine their own destiny.  

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