The victory of Iran’s conservatives in last week’s parliamentary election had many fathers. For one, the system was heavily rigged in their favor; the Guardian Council, a committee that vets candidates standing for election, had excluded more than 7,000 applicants, including, most egregiously, disqualifying 90 sitting MPs, most of them reformists.
Then there was the shock killing of the Quds commander, Qassem Soleimani, in early January, an event that handed hardliners a powerful patriotic rallying cry. Not for nothing did his photograph adorn polling stations around the country.
The decisive factor, however, was voter apathy. As in other places, voter apathy favors conservatives, whose supporters turn out to vote regardless. Turnout plummeted to just over 43 percent, the lowest in Iran’s modern history, and gave the conservatives a comfortable win with more than three-quarters of seats, including all seats in Tehran. Their influence over Hassan Rouhani means he will be a lame duck president for the last year of his term.
It seems counterintuitive to say so, but having a solidly conservative parliament in Iran may help to keep the peace. In what is a critical year for the country’s relations with the US, hardliners may actually give Iranians their best chance of avoiding a war.
Iran’s security establishment, particularly the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), has often proved obstructive to moderate politicians. In the run-up to the last presidential election, Rouhani himself publicly accused the Guards of trying to sabotage his nuclear agreement with the West.
The security establishment thrives on confrontation. The IRGC depends on continual crisis to maintain its relevance; trouble with Iraq or with the United States guarantees the money keeps flowing. With political hardliners holding the majority in parliament, now would seem to be a good moment to embark on a confrontational path. Iran could easily find itself sleepwalking into a war with the United States.
Instead, the conservatives could well reason that a period of calm in the country is more likely to produce a victory for their candidate in the next presidential election, which is only a year away. Any serious tension in the country could send that plan badly awry. Voters might turn away or, if a crackdown became necessary, it could spawn a widespread movement that carries a new moderate president to victory.
The stakes for the conservatives are serious. For the last 20 years, parliamentary elections have proved to be a reliable predictor of the presidential elections that follow; whoever wins the former has won the latter. At the last parliamentary election, in 2016, the victory of the reform bloc was interpreted as support for Rouhani’s engagement with the West. Sure enough, Rouhani won a second term a year later. The same happened with Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A comfortable victory for conservatives in 2004 paved the way for his landslide presidential win in 2005.
The single exception is Rouhani’s first victory in 2013, when he rode a wave of hope that dialogue with the West would bring results.
If conservatives can avoid any political shocks that might mobilize the opposition, they will be on course for a conservative president.
That could mean, in fact, greater engagement with the outside world and even efforts to defuse tensions with Arab countries. Hardliners might be reluctant to provoke the United States in Iraq, reasoning that an unexpected escalation from the White House – as with the sudden killing of Soleimani – would endanger their position.
Indeed, the most hopeful scenario of the next 12 months (once the memory of Soleimani’s death has faded) would see conservatives strike a deal with a newly elected US president in the hope of getting sanctions reduced, which would give the Iranian economy a boost before the presidential election.
That does mean, however, that the era of Rouhani’s moderation – such as it was – is almost certainly over. Nothing better demonstrates the failure of his policy of rapprochement than presenting the repressive rule of the hardliners as a positive thing.
Historians will debate who and what was to blame for the failure of those efforts by Rouhani, which consumed all his eight years as president. But it seems certain that this particular chapter will close next year with a conservative president of Iran in place. That will mean more confrontation, both in the region and beyond, and lots more saber-rattling over the nuclear program.
If Iran does turn quiet for a while, don’t expect it to last. The hardliners have a reason to ride out any provocations from the White House this year. After that, they won’t. There may be calm until the next president is elected. But there’s no guarantee that there will not be a storm after.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.