Why Iran’s Very Predictable Parliamentary Vote Is Still Important

The outcome of Iran’s February 21 parliamentary elections appears to be clear cut even before the ballots are cast: hard-liners and conservatives are likely to take control of the future parliament.

Yet the elections are still extremely important.

“This vote is significant because it commences the hard-line takeover of Iran’s elected institutions,” says Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London, who adds that this process will end with next year’s presidential vote going the way of the conservatives.

The expected victory of hard-liners in this week’s vote — which President Hassan Rohani says they have been boasting about privately — has been ensured by a strict vetting process employed by the powerful Guardians Council.

That omnipotent powerbroker, whose 12 members are directly and indirectly appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has disqualified more than 9,000 of the 16,000 people who registered to run, including scores of reformists and moderate candidates.

“This is 2004-2005 all over again: a shift of the center of Iranian politics to the right, harbingered by a major victory by the hard-liners in low-turnout parliamentary elections, followed by a takeover of the presidency by the hard-liners,” says Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Closing Ranks

The power shift is part of a plan by Ayatollah Khamenei and his inner circle to unify the regime and close ranks in the face of perceived internal and external threats, namely a U.S. campaign of “maximum pressure” that has devastated Iran’s economy, analysts say.

Prominent Paris-based, Iranian political analyst Reza Alijani says Iran is witnessing a “unification of power.”

“The hard core of the establishment under the leadership of Khamenei and security-military forces of the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) aim to make the regime uniform to confront pressure and insecurity of the next few years, the most important of which is likely to be the succession of leadership.”

Eighty-year-old Khamenei — who has the last say in all state matters in the Islamic republic — has undergone surgery in recent years amid long-standing rumors he has prostate cancer. The establishment appears to be determined to make his succession, whenever it comes, as smooth as possible.

“It is possible that Ayatollah Khamenei is seeking a pliant parliament to usher in constitutional reforms that would allow his successor to implement his vision for the future of the Islamic republic with less internal resistance,” Vaez told RFE/RL, adding that the expected right-wing landslide does not mean “a monolithic hard-liner’s camp [because] the conservatives appear as divided as ever.”

Iran’s hard-liners are in charge of major centers of power, including the judiciary and the IRGC, which are actively involved in state repression.

The last parliamentary elections held in 2016 led to a resurgence of moderate and reformist candidates allied with Rohani amid hopes that the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers would result in foreign investment and improved ties with the West.

But those hopes were dashed when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in May 2018 and reimposed tough economic sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy and contributed to the crash of the national currency.

The worsening economy has led to nationwide protests, including in November when a sudden hike in the price of gasoline led to angry demonstrations in more than 100 cities and towns and a brutal state crackdown that left more than 300 dead, according to Amnesty International.

There has been also public anger over Tehran’s handling of the IRGC’s January downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet that killed all 176 people on board.

Doubling Down?

Alijani says that, instead of reaching out to people and attempting to create unity, Khamenei is tightening his grip on power.

“This only means that Khamenei has reached the peak of his authoritarianism and that [his actions] will lead to the decay and breakdown of the system he controls,” says Alijani, who spent several years imprisoned in Iran.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (file photo)

Observers also blame the reformists and moderates — who have failed to bring meaningful change in easing political and social restrictions — for the expected rise of the hard-liners.

That has led many Iranians to become increasingly disillusioned with the reformist camp of the establishment, which has been increasingly marginalized.

Vakil says reformists are being forced to reconsider the effectiveness of their agenda “while hard-liners, in a full monopoly of elected and unelected institutions, will be in a position to take responsibility for economic and foreign policy decisions, including taking the next steps in the ongoing stalemate with the [United States].”

The parliament has little impact on the making of major decisions in Iran. But the rise of the hard-liners could impact ties with Washington, which have become increasingly tense in past months and brought the two sides close to a military conflict.

Vakil says that, with less domestic competition, hard-liners might have the confidence to make bold decisions vis-a-vis relations with the United States.

“This could result in a doubling down on the current maximum-resistance strategy or on the other extreme recognition that accommodation with the [United States] is strategically necessary,” Vakil told RFE/RL.

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