Iran’s hardliners ahead

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 5 Mar 2024

Conservative and extremist movements continue to dominate Iran, but the low electoral turnout hints at the regime’s unpopularity, reports Haitham Nouri

Iran s hardliners ahead


Iran’s parliamentary elections were held on Friday, the first since unprecedented protests against the hardline republican vilayet-e faqih regime in 2022 took place. The preliminary results indicate the predominance of conservative and extremist movements in the seats of both the Islamic Shura Council (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts, a religious body that monitors the performance of the government and other state entities to ensure their commitment to the principles of the Islamic Revolution led by the late religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.

Conservative and extremist movements dominate Iranian politics, evidenced by the election of Ebrahim Raisi, an extremist cleric, to the presidency in 2021, the extremists’ control of parliament in the 2020 elections, and the leadership of the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council — a quasi-judicial body overseeing parliament — by Ahmad Jannati, another cleric, for an extended period.

This has led to the voter turnout reaching 40 per cent, marking some of the lowest levels since the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The recent turnout recorded a slight decrease from the 2020 elections, held during the Covid-19 pandemic, where participation rates reached 42.57 per cent, then the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic. The highest turnout in Iranian elections in Iran was observed in 1984, 2000, 2012, and 2016, when the figure exceeded 61 per cent.

Presidential elections have often seen higher participation in Iran, as seen in the election of Ali Khamenei in 1981 (with a participation rate of 74 per cent) and Mohamed Khatami in 1997 (with over 79 per cent). Similar figures were observed in 2012 (73 per cent) and 2017 (over 73 per cent) when Hassan Rouhani secured victory. However, the highest recorded participation was in 2009, exceeding 84 per cent, during the election of the hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

More than 61.2 million Iranians are eligible to vote. The parliamentary elections had over 15,000 candidates vying for seats in the 290-member parliament, while 188 candidates contested membership in the 88-member Assembly of Experts.

The decision to allow a large number of candidates aimed to foster local competition, increase participation, and attract more voters. However, this goal was not realised, potentially leading to political repercussions for the velayat-e faqih regime at the helm since 1979. The participation rate is an indicator of the regime’s popularity.

This was evident in Tehran, where participation did not exceed 25 per cent of registered voters. Conservatives and extremists secured only 12 out of a total of 30 seats allocated to Tehran. Several parliamentary seats are yet to be determined, leading to a second round in April or May between the final contestants.

Raisi has retained his seat in the Assembly of Experts for South Khorasan Province, a position he has held for decades. The Guardian Council barred former moderate president Hassan Rouhani from running, despite his 24-year membership in the Assembly of Experts.

In contrast to Rouhani, who cast his vote near his residence in Tehran, Iran’s first reformist president, Mohamed Khatami, refrained from voting. On his official website, he expressed that the country is still “very far from holding free and competitive elections.” The official election results were scheduled for Wednesday.

This year’s elections were overshadowed by the memory of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died in police custody for violating the strict Islamic dress code. This incident sparked one of the largest protests against the vilayet-e faqih since the Green Revolution in summer 2009, which protesting what many perceived as fraud in favour of Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections.

The low turnout, Iranian reformist newspapers said, was an “alarm bell”, because the turnout serves as evidence of the regime’s legitimacy and the general electorate’s confidence in its institutions.

The dominance of conservative and extremist movements in parliament provides a strong impetus for their social bases to counteract the phenomenon of many women not adhering to the rules of the strict hijab imposed since the victory of Khomeini’s revolution. It also hinders any movement for reform and social reconciliation with liberal forces aimed at expanding political, cultural, and social participation in the country.

Conservatives fear that increased participation could diminish the influence of religious institutions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and other entities. However, the most significant aspect is the control of extremist movements over the Assembly of Experts, responsible for selecting the supreme leader of the republic, who holds absolute authority over the armed forces, security and foreign policy orientation, and defines the general cultural and religious features of society.

The current supreme leader is Ali Khamenei, who has been in office since the death of the republic’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989. The Assembly of Experts serves an eight-year term, making this session crucial for electing a new leader for the regime. The elected leader is likely to be a prominent figure in the hardline movement, such as Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the current supreme leader, or Raisi, or else Sadiq Larijani.

“If Donald Trump wins the US presidential elections, it is more likely that the Iranian to win the presidency will be the most hardline candidate,” said Esraa Abdallah, a journalist specialising in Iranian affairs. “The Guardian Council has excluded numerous reformist and moderate candidates from the Shura and Expert councils, especially considering the pivotal moment of selecting the leader,” Abdallah, who is working on her doctoral thesis in Iranian political literature of the 1990s, added.

There have been rumours regarding Khamenei’s health, leading conservative and extremist movements to prevent any reformists from attaining influential positions or having a say in the leader’s selection, she noted.

“Iran is an extremely rigid country that does not tolerate compromise, not due to moral or principled reasons, but because it is a nation under blockade,” Abdallah pointed out. “Iran faces geographical and cultural isolation, being situated between the Indian subcontinent to the east, the Arab world to the west, and the pro-Russian Turkish region to the north. The Iranian elite adopted the Shia doctrine to attract some Arabs in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and possibly the Gulf states, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan. However, it seems that this approach is no longer valid.”

Azerbaijan and Iran have strained relations due to Tehran’s concerns about separatist tendencies among Azerbaijanis in the northern part of the country and their desire for unity with Azerbaijan. In January 2023, Pakistan and Iran exchanged missile attacks on their borders. The unity of Shia Iraq behind Iranian leadership has diminished, as Shia forces in Baghdad are now working towards reconciliation with Arab countries.

Additionally, Iran is currently facing significant economic challenges due to major US sanctions. These sanctions were expanded in 2017 following the withdrawal of the US under Trump from the nuclear agreement concluded by Barack Obama in 2015. The agreement had eased decades of sanctions imposed on Iran.

Iran’s vocal support for Hamas against Israel has not yielded any tangible gains. If the mediators from Egypt, Qatar, and the US manage to reach a ceasefire that halts the Israeli war on Gaza, which has resulted in the loss of over 30,000 Palestinian lives, Iran’s position in the Palestinian cause will probably decline.

Abdallah warned that “allowing extremist movements to have absolute control in Tehran would not serve the country’s interests, as it could lead to an unpredictable confrontation, the consequences of which would be far worse than what the Islamic Republic is currently facing.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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