February 24, 2020
Pity the Iranians participating in an election process so severely rigged that, even according to the state media, 200 out of 290 Majlis seats had effectively already been assigned. The crushing victory for the hard-liners was thus preordained. Many new entrants into the Majlis are lightweight, inexperienced figures whose principal common denominator is their rabidly extremist world views.
These were elections where more than 55 percent of the 16,000 candidates were pre-emptively disqualified by the Guardian Council. Even 90 deputies from the current Majlis were summarily ruled as being unsuitable for public office. Unsurprisingly, 90 percent of those who were disqualified were relative moderates, leaving the reformist camp struggling to produce a coherent list of candidates even in strongholds like Tehran. Indeed, reformists appear to have been wiped out altogether in the capital, while winning only about 10 percent of seats throughout other parts of the country.
Such grotesquely unfair procedures convinced most Iranians not to bother voting. Participation sank to a historic low — about 20 percent in Tehran — despite Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanding that voting was a “religious and patriotic duty.” Armed Forces commander Mohammed Bagheri demanded maximum turnout to counter the “terrorist American regime’s axis of hostility and evil.”
In the current fraught regional climate and under intensified US sanctions, Khamenei is remolding his administration along unmistakably confrontational lines; preparing the ground for a monolithically radicalized administration after Iran’s presidential election next year. Yet, by extinguishing all nonmilitant voices, the only alternative the regime offers citizens is mass mobilization and revolution. The ruthless suppression of continuous bouts of uprisings has already cost hundreds of lives.
Iran is experiencing a tumultuous plunge in living standards, combined with soaring prices for basic goods.
During 2019 alone, the economy contracted by 9.5 percent, while inflation was estimated at 40 percent. This regime prefers to see citizens starve before even considering meaningful cuts to its bankrolling of overseas terrorism and paramilitary operations, which amount to several billion dollars every year. Indeed, financial data quoted in the currently circulating draft budget is widely assessed to be wholly disconnected from the unremittingly dire state of the regime’s finances.
Widespread public disillusionment with the corrupt, incompetent leadership was recently compounded by the regime’s botched attempt to cover up the shooting down of a civilian plane packed with its own citizens. The regime has also clumsily sought to cover up a major outbreak of coronavirus, which is already causing multiple deaths, with Iran rapidly becoming the most critical vector for the epidemic outside of China. Iran’s paranoid political culture makes international cooperation over the pandemic particularly fraught. There was anger in Lebanon after Hezbollah obstructed the cancelation of flights from Iran after the first reported coronavirus case of a woman returning from Qom — despite pilgrimage visits between Iraq and Iran being halted.
More aggressive overseas policies by a radicalized regime can only be disastrous for Lebanon and Iraq, where hard-liners have been agitating for more aggressive crackdowns against protesters. Ali Larijani’s Beirut trip — the first significant political visit since the formation of the Hezbollah-brokered government — sought to consolidate Lebanon’s locus within Iran’s “Axis of Resistance.” Larijani’s visit represented a deliberate attempt to scare off Western and Arab funding and support, while ludicrously pledging that Tehran’s destitute regime would help stave off bankruptcy in Beirut. Israel’s military in recent days warned that Lebanon would pay a “devastating price” for Hezbollah provocations.
We will see both the regime and the public contemplating ever more desperate measures to escape the crippling burden of sanctions and international isolation, particularly if Donald Trump remains in power beyond the 2020 US presidential election. Some observers even worry that Tehran may calculatedly trigger a regional war in a frantic attempt to reshuffle the regional deck of cards. A few hard-boiled regime theorists argue that Ruhollah Khomeini’s dictatorship prevailed only by embarking on his blood-soaked war against Iraq, forcing Iranians to unite behind the flag and dispatching a generation of troublesome, unemployed young men to be slaughtered as front-line cannon fodder.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election victory followed on the heels of a state-supervised purge of moderates in the 2004 Majlis elections — very similar to the process we have just witnessed. Ahmadinejad’s belligerent regime spearheaded campaigns of insurgency and terrorism in Iraq and other states, while taking a highly provocative approach to foreign policy and the nuclear file; in 2006 it pushed Hezbollah into a ruinous conflict with Israel. After eight years of using reformists like Mohammed Javad Zarif and Hassan Rouhani as window dressing, Khamenei appears resolved to reset the regime to its fundamentalist default.
Iran’s radicals have long blamed the nation’s economic woes on the naivety and weakness of the reformists, while sabotaging all attempts at engagement with the West. However, once these extremists control all the regime’s principal power centers, the buck will unmistakably stop with them. There will be no mistaking the ugly, deranged face of this regime.
Over the past couple of years, there have been continuous patterns of provocation by Iran: Attacks on Gulf shipping, oil installations, military targets and diplomatic sites. Experienced generals like Qassem Soleimani repeatedly took the region to the brink, only to step back and defuse tensions at the last minute. Under a remodeled regime dominated by brainwashed, like-minded radicals, there will be no voices of restraint.
Even though direct confrontation with Israel and the US would obviously be catastrophic, fire-breathing radicals could easily become prisoners of their own rhetoric and high-risk grandstanding. In an already-tense environment, a regime where Neanderthal hard-liners hold all the levers of power might not be able to restrain itself from plunging the region headlong into war.
For Iranians themselves, this farcical vote abandoned all pretenses of democracy and accountability. With domestic disenchantment worsening by the day, perhaps the radicalizing consequences of these elections represent a moment of divorce between the regime and its citizenry, which are moving in fundamentally different directions.