Iran’s hardliners are poised for big gains in parliamentary elections, setting up a decade of hostility with the US

The Islamic Republic of Iran is holding Parliamentary elections today for 290 seats to form the 11th Majlis. It is going to be one of the least competitive elections in Islamic Republic’s history since many reformist and moderate candidates have been disqualified from running.

The hardline Guardian Council that approves candidates has filtered thousands of candidates, including some current and past members of parliament. Hardliners are expected to take over most of the seats in the parliament and consolidate power against moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

Former Revolutionary Guards commander, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who lost to Rouhani in the presidential election, is running in Tehran and will most likely be the next Speaker of the parliament. He would lead the parliament with a more hardline stance and go against Rouhani’s long-time agenda of engaging with the West.

Like most countries, the economy is a main theme in this election and fighting corruption is the slogan of a new, younger faction of hardliners. There has been fierce infighting among the conservative camp and various factions are competing for seats.

The Islamic Republic is holding this election after two recent crises that have outraged many Iranians. First was nationwide anti-government protests last November where hundreds of protesters were brutally killed by security forces and thousands were arrested. Then came the shooting-down of the Ukrainian civilian airliner by an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps missile in January that killed 176 civilians on board.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said Friday is a national day of celebration, a day for Iranians to use their right to participate in governing their country, and called voting a religious duty. He asked Iranians to participate in elections in big numbers and vote early.

Rouhani has criticized the hardliners for disqualifying many moderate candidates, but nevertheless urged people to participate in the election in high numbers.

Around 58 million Iranians are eligible to vote in this election with 9 million voters in the capital of Tehran. Participation is expected to be low compared to past elections. The urban middle class in major cities have vowed to boycott the election. In Tehran, the center of the political elite of the country, participation is expected to be low compared to past elections. It is a message of discontent with the establishment.

A member of Iran’s largest reformist party, who wants to remain anonymous for security purposes, told me that elections have ended in the Islamic Republic. “There is no such thing as an election anymore,” he said, adding that “this is a form of appointment with a show of getting legitimacy from the people. The parliamentarians have already been selected and elections are held just to show that they followed the law.”

But parliamentary elections, like everywhere, are also very local. Many Iranians in smaller cities and rural areas vote for candidates based on their local issues, not national politics. Therefore, the total participation across the country is usually at a consistent rate.

The consolidation of power by hardliners will further complicate the uphill battle for Rouhani and the moderate camp who have long tried to engage with the West and were able to deliver the historic nuclear deal with world powers. Although the parliament doesn’t have much say in Iran’s foreign policy direction, a more hardline assembly will be able to weaken the moderate agenda. This will lead to increased tensions with the United States and Europe, and Iran’s further isolation from the West.

Iran’s parliamentary elections will set the stage for its upcoming presidential elections in 2021. Rouhani’s second and final term is ending and a new president will have to be elected. If hardliners continue to gain momentum with the parliamentary win followed by the city and council elections, and the reformists and moderates continue to be weakened and isolated, it is very likely that hardliners will take over the presidency and hold their grip on power for the next decade.

Iranian politics at this stage is also dependent on relations and tensions with the United States. If Donald Trump wins the presidency again in November, and stays in the White House for another four years, the current state of U.S.-Iran tensions will continue and moderates will be increasingly weakened in Iran.

But if a Democrat wins in November and enters the White House just a few months before Iran’s next presidential elections, it will affect the calculations in Tehran and there will be a shift in policy.

Most Democratic presidential candidates in the race have committed to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, which would open the door for more diplomacy and engagement between Tehran and the West, and give a lifeline to the pro-engagement camp in Iran. If that happens, the hardline momentum could be reversed and the moderates may be able to regain power and win the presidency.

If not, we should expect at least another decade of hostility between Iran and the West, similar to the era of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with tensions as high as they have ever been in the region.

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