While global attention has turned to the presidency of hardline Islamist cleric Ebrahim Raisi, changes resulting from Iran’s June by-elections to the Assembly of Experts and Iran’s parliament, as well as city council elections, will profoundly affect the day-to-day lives of Iranians. Through a program of Islamization from the ground-up, women, activists, and youths will face further repression.
Elections under Iran’s clerical system—in which the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holds absolute power—are neither free nor fair, and change cannot come through the ballot box. Indeed, Khamenei and his close circle shaped the outcome of the various elections in June to transform Iran.
The results showed victories across the board for the hardline faction—the so-called “principalists.” A closer look at the backgrounds of those elected under the principalist umbrella reveals a triumph for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the clerical regime’s ideological army. Three out of the six parliamentary seats up for grabs in the by-elections were taken by former IRGC commanders—Esmail Kowsari, Fatollah Tavasoli, and Seyed Naser Hosseinpour.
This trend was even more apparent in elections for city councils, where—especially in the bigger cities—most of the new principalist cohort has direct ties to the IRGC and the Basij, the IRGC’s volunteer civil militia. For example, in Tehran two-thirds of new city council members have an IRGC or Basij background. For Khamenei and his hardline circle, this orchestrated outcome is designed to trigger a simultaneous process of top-down and bottom-up Islamization, with the aim of attaining an ideal “Islamic society”—a stage of the Islamic Revolution that they believe remains incomplete.
Raisi’s presidency advances this objective starting at the top. However, attaining an Islamic society requires a concurrent bottom-up approach that triggers a new wave of grassroots Islamization to inculcate the regime’s Islamist ideology throughout Iranian society while simultaneously cleansing it of its non-Islamic identity. By empowering the IRGC and the Basij at the provincial and local levels Khamenei will gain greater control over Iranian streets—a calculus that shaped the city council elections.
Like the presidential vote, unprecedented election engineering took place across the city council elections. The shocking statistics of incumbent members being barred from standing for reelection gives us a measure of the extent of election rigging. The candidacies of all existing council members in Isfahan and 81 percent in the capital Tehran were rejected by the Executive Council and the Supervisory Council, both bodies responsible for vetting local elections. While the Executive Council is under the purview of the Interior Ministry, the Supervisory Council is established by parliament, which is responsible for monitoring council elections. Because parliament has been dominated by members affiliated with the IRGC and the Basij since 2020, so too has the Supervisory Council.
Across Iran’s provinces, new city council members with ties to the IRGC are well-placed to implement a grassroots wave of Islamization. All have past experience working for the IRGC’s or the Basij’s cultural-ideological branches, which are tasked with propagating the regime’s Shia Islamist ideology both inside and outside Iran. For example, Parviz Sorori, an incoming Tehran councilor, once worked as the head of Lebanese Hezbollah’s propaganda committee. Similarly, in Mashhad, the newly-elected Majid Tahourian Askari was the cultural director of the Basij in the province of Khorsan Razavi.
The IRGC and Basij—whose members form the bedrock of Khamenei’s core support base—have long been involved in the regime’s grassroots Islamization program, including through Neighborhood Councils (shoorayari)—a lower-level replica of the city council. Historically, the IRGC Provincial Guard (IRGC-PG) is the institution tasked with forming neighborhood councils in smaller towns and cities. For example, in Sanandaj the IRGC-PG formed 114 neighborhood councils in February 2021.
Even where neighborhood councils are elected, each council is required to have a local Basij, clerical, and school representative. The broad responsibilities that city councils have—including choosing the mayor as well as planning, financing, and supervising municipality plans—will further bolster the IRGC’s aims to Islamize and retake neighborhoods. For example, just last week Alireza Zakani, the former head of the Student Basij Organization and a close affiliate of the IRGC, was selected by the new Tehran City Council as mayor of Tehran. Zakani had vowed to foster an Islamic society in the capital.
What does Islamization mean in practice at the local level when it comes to creating an Islamic society? Based on previous waves of Islamization and the responsibilities of city councils, it is safe to anticipate three emerging trends.
The first relates to Islamizing public space and promoting strict Islamic morality codes. This will mean constructing new mosques and Husseiniyyes, or Shia religious centers, putting up Islamic banners, promoting public religious practices (such as Shia self-flagellation processions), and rigorously enforcing gender segregation in public. As incoming Tehran city council member and Basij-aligned Seyed Ahmad Alavi has asserted, “I accept nightlife, but only a religious nightlife can make Tehran’s nights brighter, more transparent and safer.” Alavi added, “We will definitely reform the nightlife to achieve religious design during our time in office.”
Secondly, Islamizing public life also means accelerating efforts to eliminate Western influences from Iranian society. This will include creating local regulations to further clamp down on un-Islamic dress codes, such as the “bad hijab” for women and tight clothing for men, increasing restrictions on music, cinema, and literature, and granting the police and Basij more authority to shut down shops for promoting Western holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day. The IRGC’s provincial commander for Zanjan has given a flavor of such changes, by declaring, “In Islam, hijab and chastity refer to both men and women, [therefore] in an Islamic society men need to be careful about their clothing like women.”
Cracking down on the presence of pet dogs and public dog walking is also high on the agenda. The Keyhan newspaper–Khamenei’s mouthpiece—has referred to public dog walking as a “fundamental problem” that reflects the “prevalence of a Western lifestyle.”
Finally, these two factors combined are intended to translate into more collaboration between mosques, Basij offices, as well as councils in cities, districts, and neighborhoods. In turn, the economic arms of the IRGC and Basij will have greater access to public contracts, adding to their coffers at the expense of the private-sector economy.
But while Khamenei and his allies have sought to manufacture the right set of conditions for advancing Iran towards their ideal Islamic society, they are fully aware that the Iranian people—especially youths and women—are likely to resist the new wave of Islamization. A huge gap has emerged between state and society, with large sections of Iran’s population rejecting the ideals and goals of the clerical regime. Despite the theocratic nature of the ruling system, Iranian society has undergone unprecedented secularization. This explains the empowering of the IRGC and Basij at the local level. They have the resources, manpower, and willingness to enforce grassroots changes on a defiant but defenseless population.
In the short term these changes will result in greater repression locally, which will receive the full support of the Raisi administration. In the long term, however, it will exacerbate Iran’s brain drain, with 150,000–180,000 educated Iranians already leaving the country every year. Wealthier Iranians will seek legal paths, poorer ones will turn to human traffickers to seek refuge abroad. While Western countries may be unaware of the changes that Khamenei wants to impose on society, desperation that leads Iranians to look abroad for a better and safer life may mean the repercussions will reach their doorstep.
* Kasra Aarabi is a senior analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change who specializes in Iran and Shia Islamist extremism. Saeid Golkar is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. He is also a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.