Quds Day military parade in Tehran on May 31, 2019 (saeediex / Shutterstock.com)
The uncertain victory of Iran’s hardliners

The results of Iran’s February 21, 2020 parliamentary elections were a forgone conclusion: as many observers predicted, a diverse group of hardliners won an overwhelming majority in the 290-seat Islamic Consultative Assembly, Iran’s parliament. How to evaluate this outcome depends on one’s assessment of the assembly’s role. The dominant view in expatriate Iranian opposition circles—and in the Trump White House—is that the parliament provides a theatrical prop for a fake political division between rival factions, all of which are ultimately loyal to the regime. But if this were true, the clerically dominated Council of Guardians that vets seekers for public office would not have bothered to disqualify some 9,000 (out of 15,000) would-be candidates. Backed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the hardliners are clearly resolved to gain full mastery over the legislative branch and thus to ensure that it does not provide reformists with an arena to press for even modest political reforms.

The hardliners’ victory will also come with some longer-term costs. Iran’s system pivots around a game of cat and mouse between the regime’s most ardent defenders (especially in the security apparatus), on one side, and the reformists in the formal political arena, the professional middle class, and the universities, on the other. To buttress its own legitimacy and institutional effectiveness, the regime needs a respectable electoral turnout. Moreover, the parliament gives leaders a means to voice concerns but without threatening the regime’s ultimate power—a vital safety valve for managing elite conflict. Thus the regime, and especially the supreme leader, have sought to sustain this mechanism but without giving the opposition space to mobilize a revolutionary democratic movement.

Losing these assets could very well work against the hardliners. For their part, the reformists have tried to use parliament to push for laws favoring greater political openness. This complex regime/opposition dance has generated periods of political uncertainty that have sometimes benefited the reformists, including in 2016 when, against heavy odds, an alliance of pro-reform parties won 42 percent of the vote and thus became the largest bloc in parliament.

That seems ages ago. Hardliners have now won some 200 seats. In Tehran, the assumed stronghold of reformists, apathy prevailed, thus helping hardliners take all 30 seats. Turnout in the capital was some 25 percent, while in the country at large it was only 42.5 percent of the 58 million eligible voters. This number is not quite as unprecedented as some suggest: the participation rate in 2008 was 60 percent and in 2004, also 60 percent. Still, the hardliners’ landslide victory—and the parliament it will produce—could create serious domestic and foreign policy challenges for them. As for the reformists, they now face a situation similar to the one they endured from 2005 to 2012: they will be largely shut out of a system dominated by the security apparatus. If they lose the presidency next year, which is very likely, their political defeat will be complete. The challenge the reformists face is to forge a long-term comeback strategy within a domestic, regional, and global context that is sharply tilted against them.

Hardliners face challenges and dilemmas

“There’s no way we are going to vote! It’s difficult for everyone in Iran nowadays. We’re fed up. We want to send a message that we’re not satisfied with the situation.” This warning, from a 62-year-old Tehrani woman, hints at the challenges that await hardliners. Iranians are fed up with the economic situation. Moreover, they were enraged by the killing of hundreds of protesters who took to the streets in November 2019. To the regime’s dismay, the demonstrators not only protested steep fuel prices, but they also denounced Ali Khamenei himself. Their actions and the massive boycott of the February 21 parliamentary elections suggest that the vast legitimacy crisis Iran has been suffering for years may be reaching a crescendo.

And yet, the political implications of this development are not obvious. While important, declining legitimacy is not a sufficient condition for pushing beyond autocracy. What is also needed is an organized and united opposition that can secure allies in the regime. Such an opposition is not on the horizon and thus Khamanei and his allies are not facing any immediate peril. Still, in the lead-up to the elections, Iran’s leaders were clearly worried about the political implications of a low turnout. Khamenei asserted that “Election is a civil right, public Jihad, and divine test that if accompanied with massive participation of people it will bring glory and respect to the Islamic establishment and protect the country against plots.”

Now that the very outcome that concerned Khamenei has unfolded, the regime must contend with a widening gap between it and society. What is more, it must do so without credible leaders who might bridge the growing divide. The current parliament’s Speaker Ali Larijani—a veteran conservative who has sometimes played this intermediary role—assailed the Council of Guardians for disqualifying candidates for not demonstrating a “practical commitment” to the Islamic Republic. “[W]hile I have been working with them on a daily basis for the past four or even eight years,” he asserted, “I have not witnessed such a problem in most of those people.” Ironically, Larijani surely knows that such insufficient commitment will now increase tenfold because the regime will have to rely on its most zealous supporters. For the time being, the cost that this narrowing political landscape might exact is not on the regime’s radar screen. It has other priorities, including next year’s presidential election and Khamenei’s looming succession—not to mention the threat of a military confrontation with the United States.

Still, if the escalating economic crisis provokes new protests, the regime will again face a hard choice between using massive force and thus further enraging the populace, or finding a political or economic alternative to repression, which will require reaching beyond its ardent, anti-reformist allies. Having purged the very leaders who might help ease this dilemma, the regime has no obvious exit strategy from further polarization. As if to underline this problem, Larijani may well be replaced by Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former presidential candidate, chief of police, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Air Force, and mayor of Tehran. This potential parliamentary speaker will probably run for the presidency next year, thus perhaps opening the door to hardline control of all three branches of government.

Economic headaches and perilous diplomatic seas

Such a level of control will complicate the regime’s efforts to tackle growing economic problems. The hardline camp is hardly monolithic; on the contrary, it consists of leaders who disagree sharply on many issues, not least of which are contentious matters such as privatization and the role of the public sector. The more the regime finds itself under economic pressure, the more such fissures will proliferate and expand. In the mid-2000s, this very dynamic undermined the presidency and government of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejdad. Then, at least, oil revenues provided a cushion; now, Iran’s new government will have no such resource. Indeed, the hardliners lack the resources to buy back support from the key groups that had once secured the regime’s base. Even more so, they are squeezed hard by Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign—Iran’s oil exports dropped from 2.1 million in 2016 to a current 500,000 barrels per day—and they will be under tremendous pressure to impose the kinds of austerity measures that have provoked mass protests in Iran and the wider region. If the regime uses massive force to prevent or punish protesters, it will not collapse; rather, it will become totally dependent on—or even fused with—the security apparatus.

The securitization of politics is a well-known phenomenon in the Middle East, as Egypt under President and General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi amply illustrates. But because the coherence of Iran’s political system has partly hinged on allowing a measure of real, if limited, participation, a shift to a more classic kind of despotism could prove destabilizing. This will be especially true for the current supreme leader or his successor. Rather than serve as the ultimate arbiter of the political arena, as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) clout grows, Khamenei might himself become tied to one key—if fractious—camp. In this sense, the hardliners’ February 21 electoral victory could erode what remains of Iran’s complex political infrastructure.

Finally, there is the regional and global arena whose intersecting conflicts will test the hardliners in the coming months and beyond. Although their increasing power owes much to the Trump Administration’s decision to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the evidence suggests that the hardliners want to avoid a major military confrontation with the United States. Indeed, while the White House’s actions vindicated the hardliners’ assertion that Washington would inevitably violate any nuclear agreement, any bid by Tehran to try to build a comprehensive nuclear weapons capacity will be perilous. For now, the hardliners will have to navigate these dangerous diplomatic seas with a president, Hassan Rouhani, whom they deeply mistrust but who still has the ears of western leaders, and a foreign minister whose diplomatic skills will surely be missed, if (as seems likely) an exhausted and angry Mohammad Javad Zarif retires.

The reformists’ dilemmas (and opportunities?)

In the weeks preceding the parliamentary election, Iran’s hardliners initiated a campaign to shut down any criticism of the regime. The intelligence wing of the IRGC raided the homes and offices of journalists, arresting at least 10 of them. The sentencing of one labor affairs reporter to eight years in prison for “propaganda against the state” strongly suggested that the hardliners were not worried that the reformist leaders would speak out against this repression in a bid to advance their cause. Indeed, apart from Rouhani’s political isolation, the reformists face a fragmented political and social landscape. As Tehran-based journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi put it, “Dissatisfaction is currently the only thing that unites people in Iran.” Paris-based writer Reza Alijani concurs, noting that “[e]very layer of society is dissatisfied, but they have different demands, from improving the economic situation to expanding social and political freedom.” Such divisions, he argues, require long-term political reforms and a dialogue in civil society that fosters solidarity.

The problem for the opposition is that any effort to cultivate this kind of durable strategy is unlikely to succeed without support from reformist leaders who can speak for a beleaguered, if vast, urban middle class—a key sector that is estranged from the regime yet is not strongly tethered to grassroots forces in the wider society. In a clear effort to prevent the wholesale political exclusion of the reformists, Rouhani assailed the Council of Guardians. Speaking in a televised cabinet meeting on January 15, he stated: “This is not an election. It is like having a shop with 2,000 of a single item … People want diversity … The country cannot be run by a single faction.”

This is the scenario that the reformists must face, even if the hardliners are far from united. It is perhaps on such issues that the reformists might find an opening. With a parliament controlled by hardliners, blame for whatever economic steps the regime takes will fall in the laps of those forces that have shut down the reformists. But given the continuing conflict with the United States, the regime will surely play the security card, demanding unity from a battered population that has lost faith in the promises of a president who has been subject to forces beyond his control. As they struggle to remain relevant, the reformists face a familiar dilemma: whether to attack a regime that has been subject to a US-led economic war, and thus be accused of undermining the country’s unity, or to wait it out in the hope that they can regroup ahead of the presidential elections. This is the strategy advocated by Saeed Hajjarian––a veteran reformist who narrowly survived an assassination attempt in March 2000––who proposed that the reformists should bide their time and unite their ranks in preparation for future battles.

Implications for US-Iran relations

If the Trump Administration is betting on regime collapse, it will be sorely disappointed. Sanctions have contributed to the upsurge in protests. But the social explosions born of economic hardship are unlikely to foster the alliance-making that is essential for any push to reopen the political arena. On the contrary, as one writer notes, under conditions of economic crisis “life becomes a quest not for revolution, riches or vengeance, but for dignity.” The latter is not grasped through politics but rather through the daily struggle to retain work and forms of social status that preserve morale. This is not a recipe for revolution.

Sustained political change in Iran is more likely to come from a diminishing of US-Iran conflict. Such a scenario might open the space for the continuing struggle that Hajjarian and other reformists seek. For the time being, hardliners have no reason to worry about such a prospect. The greater paradox is that having prevailed, they might now feel strong enough to consider talks with the United States. It is even possible that hardliners will offer some concessions, believing that doing so will advance their one overriding goal: regime survival.

This article has been republished with permission from the Arab Center Washington DC.

More from Daniel Brumberg