Iran’s Sham Parliamentary Elections Aim to Strengthen Hard-Liners’ Hand

COMMENTARY Middle East

Iran’s Sham Parliamentary Elections Aim to Strengthen Hard-Liners’ Hand

Feb 21st, 2020 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.
Iranian voters have their identification papers checked before casting their ballot in a parliamentary election at a polling station in Tehran on February 21, 2020. ATTA KENARE / Contributor / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Iran’s clerical regime has vetoed the candidacies of almost half of the 14,000 would-be office-seekers who registered to run for one of the 290 seats.

The Revolutionary Guards have become increasingly powerful politically.

The rigged elections are likely to further enhance their influence within the Majlis.

Iran is preparing for another set of rigged parliamentary elections Friday. 

Once again, Iran’s clerical regime has vetoed the candidacies of almost half of the 14,000 would-be office-seekers who registered to run for one of the 290 seats.

The Guardian Council, which must approve candidates, disqualified a record number of them, including a majority of reformists who threaten the entrenched power of Iran’s ruling hard-liners.  

The purge left reformists with no candidates eligible to run for 230 of the 290 seats in the Majlis, Iran’s parliament.

The Guardian Council even disqualified 90 current members of the Majlis and barred them from running for reelection.

President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic leader who has been undermined by ultra-hard-liners surrounding the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticized the Guardian Council, saying: “This is not an election. It’s an appointment.” 

Rouhani, a lame-duck prohibited from running for reelection when his second term expires next year, has been diminished politically by massive protests over fuel price hikes, reduced government subsidies, high unemployment, widespread corruption, and economic stagnation exacerbated by renewed U.S. economic sanctions.

As Iranian journalist Amir Taheri has noted, Iran is the only country in the world—with the possible exception of Zimbabwe—that is poorer than it was 40 years ago.  

Although U.S. sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy in recent years, Iran’s economic problems are largely attributable to the economic mismanagement, widespread corruption, and expensive efforts to export Iran’s revolution and build a massive proxy terrorist network under the hard-line Islamist extremists who have dominated Iran since the 1979 revolution.

In November, Iran was shaken by another wave of popular protests against the repressive and increasingly unpopular clerical regime. Spontaneous demonstrations against a fuel price hike escalated rapidly into widespread unrest and calls for the ouster of the regime, before they were brutally repressed.  

Rouhani has become increasingly isolated. He has been criticized by many reformists for failing to deliver on pledges to reform Iran’s economy and ease social and political restrictions. He also has raised the ire of hard-liners, who opposed the nuclear agreement negotiated with the Obama administration, as well as his efforts to trim the powers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

The Revolutionary Guards, charged with protecting and expanding Iran’s Islamic Revolution, have become increasingly assertive in carving out their own empire within Iran’s economic, political, military, and foreign policy spheres.  

Since they report directly to Khamenei, not Iran’s president, they prioritize the narrow interests of Iran’s Islamist revolutionary elite over the broader national interests represented by the Iranian state. 

A Creeping Coup

The Revolutionary Guards have become increasingly powerful politically. Many hard-line political leaders are veterans of the Revolutionary Guards or the affiliated Basij militia.  

Their numbers are likely to increase in the new Majlis, because they are more likely than reformists or independents to gain the approval of the Guardian Council.

Moreover, many reformists are calling for a boycott of the elections, which are designed to favor the clerical regime’s strongest supporters. Reformists have concluded that as long as the Guardian Council blocks their candidates and vetoes their legislation, reform through parliamentary action is impossible.

Instead, an influx of new hard-line members of parliament could reinforce the position of Khamenei  and his hard-line inner circle, while greatly complicating Rouhani’s final year in office.

In contrast to Iran’s disillusioned reformists, hard-liners have appealed to their supporters to vote. Khamenei has gone so far as to declare voting to be a “religious duty” and seeks to bolster the perceived legitimacy of Iran’s increasingly repressive political system by hailing the election as a vote of confidence in the regime.

But using voter turnout as a litmus test for legitimacy could backfire if the turnout falls below the 62% turnout in the 2016 parliamentary election or the 66% turnout in 2012.

Lower turnout, however, could accelerate the Revolutionary Guards slow-motion coup against the state.  

The Revolutionary Guards already have made major inroads in penetrating Iran’s construction industry, oil sector, and port operations, as well as the military, intelligence, and internal security operations of the regime.  

The rigged elections are likely to further enhance their influence within the Majlis.

Such an outcome will reinforce the conclusion of many Iranians that the only vote that matters is that of Khamenei, who has absolute veto power over all major issues.  


For more information on this topic:

Will Iran’s Government Fall?

How Protests Undermine Iran and Its Proxies in Iraq and Lebanon

Iran Nuclear Deal: Next Steps

U.S. Must Lead Strong Multinational Response to Iran’s Extortion Strategy

Iranian Protests Underscore Regime’s Vulnerability

 

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal