Iran’s eleventh parliamentary elections, on February 21, were held in quite extraordinary circumstances, not least in terms of public trust in state institutions, government credibility, and state-society relations more broadly.
Against a backdrop of US “maximum pressure,” which commenced in May 2018 after the Trump administration scrapped the Iran nuclear deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—and reimposed blanket sanctions on the Iranian economy, Tehran witnessed the first major wave of nationwide unrest instigated in part by sanctions, albeit indirectly. The November 2019 protests erupted, and were successfully crushed, following a government decision to compensate for its depleting coffers by sharply raising gasoline prices and cutting fuel subsidies. The ensuing brutal crackdown left an unprecedented 631 people dead—with the Trump administration citing as high as 1,500—and thousands more injured. (The death toll has yet to be officially announced.)
Less than two months later, on January 3, the US assassination of Iran’s top military official Qasem Soleimani and Tehran’s retaliatory missile strikes against Iraqi bases housing American forces brought the two adversaries to the brink of war. On the heels of what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had dubbed Iran’s “harsh revenge” for the Soleimani killing, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane departing from Tehran, killing all 176 people onboard. Worse yet, the government tried to cover up the real cause of the fatal crash for three days—blaming it on “technical flaws”—before mounting international and domestic pressure compelled it to come clean.
The parliamentary elections were overshadowed by “maximum pressure” and with a strategic view to its continuation for another four years—given the potential likelihood of US President Donald Trump’s reelection in 2020 unless the coronavirus pandemic upsets the odds—as well as the approaching challenge of leadership succession.
Notably, most state officials including Khamenei himself—who were rightly concerned about a remarkably low turnout—appealed to the disenchanted constituents’ sense of patriotism and passion for their country to urge “maximum participation” in the vote.
“Everyone who is interested in Iran and its security should take part in the elections,” the Supreme Leader said in a speech on February 5. “Someone might not like me, but if they like Iran, they should come to the ballot box [and vote].”
Yet, the same centers of power, relying on the Guardian Council—a hardline constitutional vetting body—did not hesitate to disqualify around 7,000 out of some 14,000 hopefuls, including a record 90 incumbent lawmakers who aspired to run for reelection. In fact, despite its desire for a show of legitimacy and popularity in the face of growing external threats, the Iranian leadership took an unmistakable step towards cultivating a more homogeneous political system to be dominated by hardliners.
On the campaign trail, even some top IRGC commanders appeared in promotional videos rooting for prominent hardline candidates, indicating the die was already cast and the odds were stacked in their favor in a premeditated fashion. In a stark instance, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s aerospace division, praised Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf profusely and in particular highlighted his “unrivaled role” as the former head of the IRGC air force (1997 – 2000) in the “quantitative expansion” of Iran’s missile industry.
“The presence of transformationist brothers, jihadi and revolutionary managers of Qalibaf’s ilk must solve the country’s economic problems,” Hajizadeh asserted.
Unsurprisingly, the result was a 42.5 percent turnout, the lowest in the legislative history of the Islamic Republic, and, as predicted, conservatives won by a large margin, gaining 221 seats in the 290-seat parliament. A second round of voting, originally scheduled for April, has now been postponed to September 11, as a precautionary measure to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The capital city Tehran, which registered one of the lowest turnouts across the country at just over 25 percent, produced the most significant victory for hardliners who won all its 30 seats, with Qalibaf at the top of the “principlist” list.
A former mayor of Tehran and presidential candidate, Qalibaf is widely notorious for a long track record of corruption and mismanagement, and yet has been groomed for the critical post of parliament speaker. In that role, if successfully secured, he is expected to advance several key strategic policies in conjunction with the Revolutionary Guards and the executive, which seems to have ideally been reserved for another principlist loyal to the Supreme Leader.
For all intents and purposes, the Iranian leadership is bracing itself for a second Trump victory in the US presidential elections, in which case his administration’s “maximum pressure” policy against the Islamic Republic will probably continue in one way or another for the foreseeable future. This means if Iran persists with its asymmetrical resistance and retaliation and if diplomatic efforts fail to achieve deescalation and sanctions relief, two scenarios will become likely: either a military confrontation between Tehran and Washington at some point or recurring waves of unrest and ensuing state suppression.
Even if war is averted, thanks potentially to regional mediation and fear of consequences, continuation of crippling sanctions for a few more years will only result in further death and destruction in Iran. As the violent suppression of gasoline protests in November 2019 clearly demonstrated, the Islamic Republic will not hesitate to kill its way out of popular revolt while trying to use the public as a buffer against increasing threats to its survival. The state-sanctioned fuel price spike was arguably an instance of how the government is transferring the external pressure on to society in critical circumstances when its grip on power is undermined.
Operationalizing such a ruthless survivalist strategy requires a relatively homogeneous system of decisionmaking and governance that would ensure maximum cooperation and synergism among otherwise competing political and security branches of the state. The synergism is also deemed necessary for a smooth and successful transition of power if Khamenei, 80-years-old at the moment, passes away at any moment over the next four years.
This is where a hardline-dominated parliament, to be possibly headed by Qalibaf, will come in handy. In concert with the IRGC, he will do his best to prepare the ground for the election of a like-minded president who at least does not hamper the implementation of the aforementioned strategy.
Now with the addition of the coronavirus pandemic to Iran’s threat basket, and as experts have already pointed out, the authoritarian tendencies of the Islamic Republic are likely to strengthen over the coming years, unless external pressure eases up, creating much-needed breathing room for the Iranian polity, society and economy alike.
Maysam Behravesh is a PhD candidate in political science at Lund University in Sweden. He is also a a political analyst at the US-based geopolitical risk consultancy Gulf State Analytics. Follow him on Twitter: @MaysamBehravesh.
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