North Africa, West Asia

Iranian hardliners 'engineer’ parliamentary elections in a show of defiance

Many in Iran had foreseen the outcome since 2018 when President Trump first sealed the fate of the reformists by pulling the US out of the nuclear deal.

Mehrdad Khonsari
26 February 2020
Cleric fills out his ballot at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 21, 2020.
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Picture by Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The sparsely attended parliamentary elections to the 11th ‘Islamic Majles’, and elections to the ‘Council of Experts’ charged with electing the next Iranian Supreme Leader, were conducted in a sombre atmosphere on 21 February, and inevitably yielded the exact results they were orchestrated to produce.

With moderate and progressive elements represented by the Rouhani government hugely discredited for ‘over-promising and under-delivering’, especially since the re-imposition of harsh U.S. economic sanctions in the aftermath of America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the overwhelming triumph of anti-U.S., hard-line conservatives generally opposed to the nuclear deal was preordained.

The only unexpected factor was the unprecedented level of manipulation on the part of the Khamenei camp to eliminate the presence of all dissenting voices either in parliament or more importantly in the Council of Experts, which is expected to play a crucial role in the forthcoming succession battle.

In an election marked by the lowest participation level in the 41-year history of the Islamic Republic (42.5% overall with only 26% in Tehran province), the Guardians Council - charged with vetting the credentials of candidates on the basis of their commitments to the tenets of the Islamic Republic as prescribed by the current Supreme Leader - had earlier ensured a conservative landslide championed by radical hardliners, by rejecting the credentials of more than 7000 reformist candidates wanting to contest seats in 290 districts around the country. In the end, the reformist presence of 140 was reduced to 19 with the conservative hardliners increasing their representation to 220 (with 40 independents and another 11 seats being decided in the second round).

Many in Iran had foreseen such an outcome as far back as May 2018, when President Trump first sealed the fate of the reformists by pulling the US out of the nuclear deal, and more recently sanctioning the killing of Ghassem Soleimani. Ironically, Trump's unilateral exit from the JCPOA, and his harsh sanctions policy referred to as ‘Maximum Pressure’, not only strengthened Iran's hardliners but thwarted U.S. attempts to secure a ‘new and better deal’ that addresses key additional issues such as Iran’s so-called ‘malign behaviour in the region’, or its ambitious long-range missile programme.  

Nonetheless, notwithstanding U.S. frustrations at the impasse, the fact remains that the Iranian nation, owing to Khamenei’s intransigence, is losing revenues equivalent to 150-200 million dollars per day. Although ordinary Iranians might take some solace at their narrow escape from a full bloodied and devastating war with the U.S. - a war they could not have hoped to win - they fully realise their leaders are incapable of solving the root causes of their daily sufferings through rampant inflation, unemployment and corruption, for which the new conservative majority has no remedy other than brutal repression.

Efforts to manipulate elections to the Council of Experts prolong a rule that has achieved nothing more than 41 years of political mismanagement, social mayhem, economic chaos and international isolation

Finally, at a time when the Islamic leadership is critically engaged in a struggle to decide the succession to Ayatollah Khamenei, there is a disturbing development that parallels the pattern and behaviour of the emerging radicals in the conservatives' camp with those previously exhibited by the National Socialists in Germany.

Just as ‘National Socialism’ a century ago was the ideology of far right groups in Germany that blended fervent anti-Semitism, anti-communism and opposition to the Versailles Treaty along with utter disdain for liberal democracy and a regulated parliamentary system, the increasingly isolated segment of the ruling establishment under Khamenei is attempting to replicate that model of monopolising its hold on power by ensuring that only those committed to its radical agenda (anti-liberal, anti-American, etc.) are in control of every key institution in the country. Hence, efforts to manipulate parliamentary elections and, more importantly, elections to the Council of Experts, are a deliberate attempt to sustain and prolong a rule that has achieved nothing more than 41 years of political mismanagement, social mayhem, economic chaos and international isolation.

In order to pacify a populace drained of religious fervour, the emerging radicals - perhaps best labelled as ‘Iranian neocons’, who now constitute a majority in the Iranian parliament, have resorted to adding a tinge of nationalism (e.g. the right to enrich uranium) to their otherwise unpopular agenda, which is nothing more than a loose set of beliefs based on a minority held view of Shia Islam.

Those watching Iran closely expect the same ‘Iranian neocons’, whose small and diminishing support base nonetheless constitutes the only truly organised political force inside Iran, to try and railroad their chosen candidate to yet another electoral victory in next year’s presidential election. At the same time, no one - including some of their newly elected MPs such as former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, tipped to be the next Speaker of Parliament - has the slightest belief that they are capable of resolving any of the country’s chronic problems, especially the economy, without ultimately readjusting their positions and arriving at some form of a compromise with the other political factions they have actively sought to dislodge from any decision-making process in the country.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo is the only thing that unites most Iranians

In the absence of such an accommodation, and the attainment of some form of a compromise for lifting sanctions and providing economic relief, the available alternatives promise nothing less than further upheaval and violence at home, and potentially another damaging all out war.

While dissatisfaction with the status quo is the only thing that unites most Iranians, it is clear that the manner in which the recent elections were conducted was viewed as a charade by an overwhelming majority of despondent Iranians who simply chose to ignore the whole process.

As ‘Iranian neocons’ celebrate their moment of victory following the recent elections, they are nonetheless aware that nothing has been resolved and a tortuous path awaits their every future move. 

Ultimately, it is in their interest and that of the Iranian nation to see a ‘road map’ capable of promoting national reconciliation through dialogue, as amplified most recently by the likes of President Rouhani and former President Khatami, to mobilise a popular and inclusive movement realistically capable of ending Iran’s endless quarrels with the outside world, resurrecting the economy and most importantly, healing civil society. 

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