On 1 March 2024, Iranians voted in elections for its parliament and for its Assembly of Experts (which appoints the Supreme Leader).

They were the first elections held in the country since the widespread protests in 2022/23 that followed the death of Mahsa Amini, during which 551 protestors were killed by security forces according to the UN fact-finding mission.

The new parliament and assembly will again be dominated by conservative and hard-line political factions. But turnout was low. Observers argue this is a sign that societal disenchantment with governing elites remains high.

Which elections took place?

The elections in March were for two bodies:

  • The Assembly of Experts (Majlis-e Khobregan) is the only body with the power to appoint, supervise and dismiss the Supreme Leader (Iran’s head of state). It comprises 88 members and is elected every eight years.
  • The parliament (Majles-e Shoraye Eslami) is a single-chamber legislature. It has 290 members and is elected every for four years.

While these bodies are democratically elected, Iran’s constitution requires that religious clerics and appointed bodies vet candidates before an election. Reflecting the ruling Iranian government’s interpretation of the principle of “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist”, the Supreme Leader and members of the Assembly of Experts must be clerics and scholars of Shia Islam.

Candidates for election to both the parliament and the Assembly of Experts must be approved by the 12-strong Guardian Council. The Guardian Council consists of six experts in Islamic law, appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six experts in civil law, approved by the parliament. The council must also approve the parliament’s legislation before it can become law.

Individuals over 18 are eligible to vote.

What were the results?

Candidates primarily stand as part of groups and factions, rather than political parties. Analysts divide these into two main groups, neither of which act as single blocs. Both continue to support Iran’s status as an Islamic republic:

While second-round elections will be held in some seats, both the parliament and Assembly of Experts will be dominated by conservative factions.

The think tank International Crisis Group argues the growing “ideological conformity at the top” may be at the cost of losing legitimacy among the population, which could risk political instability.

The number of women elected to the parliament was 11. Since the overthrow of the last Shah and establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, the greatest number of women in the Iranian parliament at one time has been 17.

How free was the vote?

The UK Minister for the Middle East, Lord Ahmad, said in March that the Iranian people were “again denied their right to free and fair elections”.

As in past elections, the Guardian Council barred many reformist and moderate candidates from standing, including some existing parliamentarians. As in 2020, reformist groups backed no single list of candidates for the elections and the majority of the 15,000 parliamentary candidates were from conservative groups.

Candidates barred from the Assembly of Experts included the former President Hassan Rouhani (in office 2013 to 2021). No decision was given for the barring.

The Guardian Council says most of those rejected from the assembly elections did not meet education-related criteria.

The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s Human rights and democracy report describes “systematic violations” of freedom of expression and association in Iran, limiting participation in public life.

How high was turnout?

Iran’s Supreme Leader had called for a high turnout to “disappoint the ill-wishers”, while some opposition groups had called for a boycott.

Iran’s Interior Minister reported that around 41% of the electorate voted.

This was a historic low for Iranian parliamentary elections, down from 43% in 2020 and lower than the average turnout of 60% in the 10 parliamentary elections held from 1980 to 2016.

Among those voters abstaining were former President Khatami (in office 1997 to 2005). The capital, Tehran, was among the areas with the lowest turnouts, as were some areas populated by Kurdish and Baluch minorities, which had experienced the most extensive protests in 2022.

The academic Ali Ansari argues the low turnout is evidence of a “widening divide between state and society” in Iran.

Will the elections affect Iran’s foreign policy?

Iranian foreign policy is primarily set by the Supreme Leader, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The new parliament is therefore unlikely to affect Iran’s turn to Russia and China under President Ebrahim Raisi or to curtail its support for armed and terrorist groups across the Middle East.

However, Iran’s parliament has been more active on Iran’s nuclear programme and some conservatives have united with reformists to support an international agreement in the past. In 2015, the parliament gave its approval to the nuclear agreement between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council (plus Germany), in which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for relief from related sanctions.

The agreement has stalled since 2018, when the US withdrew and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. No recent talks on restoring the full agreement have been held, though no side has said they have failed.

A 2024 US intelligence assessment judges that Iran continues to accelerate its nuclear programme.

What might the result mean for the next Supreme Leader?

If the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, dies or leaves office before the next Assembly of Experts election in 2032, the newly elected members of the assembly will choose his successor. The Supreme Leader is currently 84 and will be 92 at the time of the next assembly election.

Since 1979, there has only been one transition of supreme leader, in 1989, from Ruhollah Khomeini to Ali Khamenei (who was then President of Iran). The choice of Khamenei was subject to factional infighting after Khomeini disowned his preferred successor.

As noted by International Crisis Group and BBC Persian, in 2024 the exclusion of more moderate candidates from the assembly and the re-election of President Raisi suggests the succession will likely be resolved between conservative political factions, the IRGC and Ali Khamenei himself.

Further reading

About the author: Philip Loft is a Commons Library researcher, specialising in international affairs

Photo Credit: Alexeiy on Adobe Stock

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