By Amir Taheri
March 2, 2020
Describing the latest exercise in voting in Iran’s “elections” may require a high degree of indulgence. When all candidates are pre-approved by the authorities and no one is declared a winner without the stamp of the “Supreme Guide”, to speak of elections would mean stretching lexical flexibility to breaking point. And, yet, the rigmarole in question merits attention for a number of reasons.
To start with, the lowest percentage of eligible voters chose to go to the polls. After days of hesitation, the authorities decided to report a turnout of 42 percent, the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic.
In Tehran, voter turnout was around 24 percent. Four other provinces, Khuzestan, Gilan, Qom, and Alborz also registered low turn-outs of around 30 percent.
While the main election was for the Islamic Consultative Assembly, the unicameral ersatz parliament, mid-term elections for the Assembly of Experts, which in theory supervises the work of the “Supreme Guide”, also took place. There, turnout was even lower, in some cases as low as 20 percent. Only Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, the Khomeinist theologian most in vogue, managed to attract more than 30 percent of the votes in Mashhad.
All in all, two-thirds of eligible voters responded to the boycott call by a wide spectrum of political forces.
More importantly, perhaps, a study of voting patterns shows that the boycott was most effective among the poorer masses while the new middle class created since the revolution ensured a bigger turnout. In other words, the Islamic Republic is firmly rejected by the very poor masses that it claims to represent.
The composition of the next Majlis merits attention for other reasons.
For the first time in 40 years, the next Majlis will appear as a solid base for radical Khomeinism, abandoning the four-decades long “hardline-moderate” comedy designed to fool the old middle classes and the outside world.
The so-called “moderates” and “reformists” whose task was to give a North Korean-style regime a Scandinavian varnish have been reduced to insignificance. In fact, this could be regarded as the effective end of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, even though it is unlikely that he would do the honorable thing and step down.
Of the 290 members of the next Majlis 221 are labeled “radical” or” hardliner” while only 20 claim to be “reformists”. A batch of 15 members belongs to the entourage of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who promotes himself as a cross between Mahatma Gandhi and Chengiz Khan. A further 33 seats go to weathervanes, individuals with a local base but always open to higher bids. Finally, at the time of this writing, the fate of 11 seats, where no candidate won a majority, was to be decided in the second round of voting.
The new Majlis is the first to reflect the true balance of power within the Khomeinist establishment. The backbone of the regime, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), forms the biggest bloc with 123 seats. Pro-regime clerics with close ties to the IRGC will occupy a further 43 seats. Thus even without Ahmadinejad’s bloc, the IRGC and affiliates enjoy a solid majority.
The fact that the new Majlis reflects the true nature of the regime as never before must be regarded as a positive development.
Domestically, the elections put an end to “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei’s claim that the regime’s failures in the past four decades have all been due to “moderate” factions from the late Hashemi Rafsanjani’s “builders” to Rouhani’s “New York Boys.”
In foreign policy, the new Majlis could end the illusion, most recently entertained by former US President Barack Obama, that the way to bring Iran back into the international fold is to back the “moderate” faction by offering concessions to the regime.
The next Majlis reveals the true nature of the Khomeinist system as a typical “Third World” regime with a military-security backbone and a thin ideological varnish. Something like the Castrist outfit in Cuba, the Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe, and, above all, the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea which is Khamenei’s ideal model of government.
Seen in that light, no one would expect the Islamic Republic to respect human rights, encourage citizen participation in decision-making and put the quest for economic development above obsession with ideological purity. The new Iranian middle class, including its apologists in the West, would have to accept, and if they wish to adulate, the Khomeinist regime warts and all, unable to project on it forlorn hopes of moderation and reform.
Abroad, powers interested in Iran, for better or for worse, would also know exactly what kind of beast they are dealing with and either seek a modus vivendi with it or work for regime change in Tehran. More importantly, they would know that the Iranian figures they negotiate with aren’t mere actors playing president or foreign minister.
US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, ostensibly aimed at persuading Tehran to change its behavior has already succeeded in forcing the regime to round the wagons and prepare for a final fight.
Paradoxically, however, that success has also revived the possibility of making a deal with the regime. With the “New York Boys” scripted out, the IRGC and affiliates no longer fear a US-backed putsch that could marginalize or even exclude them from power. The world is full of nasty regimes that are tolerated, or even befriended, by the US and other big powers as long as they keep their nastiness within certain limits.
Last Friday’s elections produced the least bad outcome under the present circumstances. Khamenei had dubbed the exercise “a new referendum” for or against the Khomeinist system. The results show that the overwhelming majority of Iranians either reject the current regime or, at last no longer actively support it.
The elections showed that around a third of Iranians, including a chunk of the new urban middle classes, still back the even smaller minority of the military-security constituency that enjoys a monopoly over money and force. For the Iranian opposition, the unmasking of the regime is a great boon; knowing who exactly one is fighting against is the first step towards shaping a credible strategy for change.