Iran’s recent highly managed parliamentary elections show that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his allies have abandoned all pretense of representing the will of the people. Hardliners are now in full control of the parliament. Provisional results released by the Iranian authorities point to a complete takeover of the parliament, with Khamenei’s allies taking 178 out of 290 seats. The reformists are down from 120 seats to just 17. The consequence of this is likely to be increased domestic strife as well as an escalation of tensions with the US.
The election result was in many ways a foregone conclusion. The Guardian Council, a 12-member panel which vets candidates and reports directly to Khamenei, had already barred reformers from standing for election. Some sitting members of parliament and even conservative candidates with impeccable revolutionary credentials did not make the cut either, often on the flimsiest of pretexts.
The council has in the past barred candidates from both the parliamentary and presidential elections, but this election was notable because it was the most extensive and wide-ranging of purges since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The subsequent low voter turnout, a paltry 43 percent, the lowest for any parliamentary election since the revolution, was also not in doubt. The question then is, why did Khamenei choose this course of action?
He seems to have calculated that as he enters the twilight of his political life, he needs to control all the levers of Iran’s complex government system to secure the regime and ensure his political legacy. In the past, free parliamentary and presidential elections have given Iranians an outlet for venting their displeasure with the regime periodically. In 2016, voter turnout in Tehran was 50 percent and reformists took all 30 of Tehran’s parliamentary seats. This time, voter turnout in the capital was a mere 25 percent and the reformists were wiped out. Indeed, voter turnout has been low even in conservative strongholds such as Mashhad and Esfehan. The city of Ahwaz in Khuzestan province – home to a disaffected Arab minority and the site of major anti-regime protests last November – also registered a low turnout.
The Supreme Leader has in the past been prepared to tolerate voters delivering sharp rebukes via the ballot box. This time, however, he appears to be playing a longer game, using a compliant parliament to re-focus angry attention on the government led by President Hassan Rouhani. Indeed, Iranian conservatives have already started criticizing Rouhani for his government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis within the country. Next: expect the new parliament to haul in government ministers for questioning. It might even borrow from the American playbook and call for Rouhani’s impeachment.
Furthermore, parliament may also pass constitutional amendments leading to wide-ranging changes in how future presidents and parliaments are elected. It is perhaps no coincidence that Mohsen Qalibaf – former mayor of Tehran, former head of the air force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and firm Khamenei ally – topped the list of winners from Tehran, where voters cast ballots for all 30 of the city’s representatives in parliament. He is now likely to be the next speaker and may use this influential perch to contest next year’s presidential elections.
These parliamentary elections have also excised powerful conservatives such as Ali Larijani, the incumbent speaker, and Ali Motahari, the incumbent deputy speaker, from the political scene. This can only benefit their political rival, Ebrahim Raisi, another Khamenei ally and currently the head of the Iranian judiciary. While Larijani chose not to stand in this election, Motahari was disqualified by the Guardian Council. Raisi is considered a strong contender to succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader.
In short, the domestic impact of the new parliament is that it allows Khamenei to place his allies in key positions and thus lay the groundwork for his legacy.
In geopolitical terms, Khamenei may use the new parliament to shape a domestic political consensus that favors Iran abandoning its end of the nuclear deal. Getting parliament to pass resolutions requiring the government to exit the deal can be presented to the outside world as following the will of the Iranian people.
The new parliament can also be relied upon to support Iranian actions in the region. From Khamenei’s point of view, it makes the most sense to walk away from the nuclear deal before November, since Donald Trump is unlikely to embark on war with Iran while he is campaigning for re-election. Israel, too, notwithstanding Benjamin Netanyahu’s bluster, is unlikely to act without a green light from the Americans.
The greatest danger to Khamenei and his regime, though, may come from the Iranian people themselves. Having closed off electoral politics, however circumscribed, as an avenue for Iranians to vent their ire from time to time against the ruling elite, Khamenei has in many ways thrown down the gauntlet to his people. Widespread disgust at the incompetence of the authorities, a failing economy, the cover-up surrounding the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner and now the coronavirus spreading through the country, leaves Iranians with nothing but the street as an outlet for their anger.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.