Cartoon by Kianoush Ramezani
Iran’s ‘Hard-Liner in Chief’ Is Only Vote That Counts
Bloomberg: Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.
When the results come in from tomorrow’s parliamentary elections in Iran, they will likely show a sweeping victory for the hard-line faction of its political establishment. This outcome will lead many Tehranologists to conclude that President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has empowered the hard-liners and doomed the prospect of a new nuclear deal.
They will be wrong on both counts.
Iran’s hard-liners do not need — indeed, have never needed — external empowerment. They already have absolute control over all the levers of power that matter. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is a hard-liner, along with the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Supreme National Security Council, the Guardian Council, the Assembly of Experts, the judiciary… the list goes on. Thus has it been since the revolution of 1979 brought the theocrats to power.
Parliament, formally known as the Islamic Consultative Assembly, has never been more than a talking shop, where the tallies of the hard-line, reformist and centrist-moderate factions of the regime — Iran allows no political parties — fluctuate without much consequence. Whatever the assembly’s deliberations, in the end it is Khamenei’s writ that runs. His control of the 12-member Guardian Council, which interprets the constitution and approves legislation, ensures that no laws are enacted except at his pleasure.
To give the impression of democratic process, Khamenei may occasionally allow reformists or centrists to “win” a parliamentary election, but his weighty finger on the scale prevents the implementation of their policies. Every so often, he presses down harder, to guarantee a victory for his hard-liners — again, using the Guardian Council to disqualify aspirants from the other factions.
Typically, he does this every eight years — or two parliamentary cycles. Friday’s election comes after two terms in which the hard-liners have, at least notionally, been on the equivalent of the opposition benches. Sure enough, Khamenei is again tipping the scale. The Guardian Council has disqualified more candidates than ever before — and, wouldn’t you know it, a disproportionate number are from the reformist and centrist camps.
The bottom line is this: No matter the external conditions, the hard-liners were due a “comeback” in parliament, and Khamenei was going to ensure this outcome. Yes, Trump and the U.S. sanctions have been talking points in the election campaign, but they have been used by all factions, and their impact on the results will be moot.
Much more germane to the prospects of the hard-liners is turnout. There is every indication that, disillusioned by their deeply corrupt political system, many Iranians — especially those of the reformist or centrist persuasion — will sit out the vote. This has historically been good for the hard-liners: In Iran as in actual democracies, extremists are always motivated on election day.
Khamenei’s quandary is that he wants his hard-liners to win with a big turnout. He has been exhorting Iranians to vote, to show the world that they are behind him and his policies. (Amusingly, for a man with highly questionable clerical qualifications, he has described this as a religious duty.)
But Iranian voters would have to be willing to forgive their Supreme Leader for decades of misrule, and to forget the corruption of his regime, his brutal crackdown on protests, the recent shooting down of a civilian jetliner — and the attempted cover-up thereafter.
If Iranians don’t respond to his call, it would be a vote of no-confidence on Khamenei’s reign. To forestall that embarrassment, the turnout figure may well be fudged: Khamenei is not above ordering the stuffing of ballot boxes, as he did in the 2009 presidential election, when his choice, the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, looked set to lose.
The results of Friday’s vote may not meaningfully change Iran’s policies, internal or external, but they will mark a minor milestone: the formal start of the lame-duck phase of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. His half-hearted efforts at reform were never going to go very far with Khamenei at the helm; a parliament dominated by hard-liners will confirm his complete isolation and impotence.
What does that mean for negotiations with the U.S. and the West? A victory for hard-liners will be accompanied by warmed-over anti-American rhetoric, but the cold reality is that negotiations were always going to have to wait until after the lame duck had limped off the center-stage.
There will be a presidential election in 2021, and in keeping with the cyclical nature of Iranian politics, Rouhani’s successor will likely be a hard-liner, too. That would suggest more ill tidings. But it won’t be the president who decides whether or not to open parleys: As usual, that will be the Supreme Leader’s call.
For now, Khamenei says a new deal is out of the question. But by 2021, the country will have endured nearly two more years of economic pain from the U.S. sanctions, as well as the incalculable opportunity cost of falling behind its regional rivals. If the past couple of years are any guide, more spasms of protest will ensue from a public that is growing increasingly impatient with the Supreme Leader.
Who knows, there might even be a new president in the White House.
These conditions would not guarantee negotiations, much less a new deal, though they will at least be more conducive than those that now prevail. But in the short run, the results of Friday’s election will make little difference to the chances of peace.