Thursday, 19th March 2020

Iranian hardliners take control but not responsibility

Hardliners in Iran may feel that they held the eleventh election for the Majlis-e Shura-ye Eslami (parliament) just in time. The vote on 21 February returned a chamber dominated by conservatives, as a result of the widespread exclusion of moderate candidates by the Guardian Council, and low turnout among a disillusioned populace. But given the authorities’ failure to cope with the Covid-19 outbreak since then, the authorities will have to work even harder to supress public anger in the future.

Just 42.6% of eligible voters went to the polls in February, according to interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli. This was the lowest figure since the Islamic Republic came into being in 1979. Turnout in Tehran slumped to just 25%, according to the official figure. Of the 290 seats on offer across the country, conservative candidates picked up at least 219, including all 30 in Tehran where the results were topped by the city’s former mayor, presidential candidate and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf (sometimes written Ghalibaf). Usually the capital is seen as a bastion of opposition voters.

Among the other 71 seats, 35 were won by independent candidates, 20 by reformists and five are reserved for religious minorities. The remaining 11 undecided seats were due to go to a run-off election on 18 April, but that has been deferred by five months to 11 September, following a proposal from Fazli which was subsequently endorsed by the Guardian Council on 15 March; the reason for the delay is the coronavirus crisis.

As of 18 March, Iran had officially recorded 16,169 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 disease caused by the new coronavirus; the official death toll had reached 1,135. Nowruz festivities have been cancelled this year and thousands of prisoners have been temporarily released, including British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

While Iran has reported far more cases and deaths than any other country in the region (globally only China and Italy have fared worse), the true numbers are thought to be much higher. This is to some extent unavoidable. As in other countries, not everyone who contracts the disease will end up being tested and some sufferers will have underlying medical conditions that may be cited as the reason for death, rather than Covid-19. However, there is a deep suspicion that the authorities are unwilling to admit the scale of the disaster; any sign of robust public debate in the media about the government’s performance is quickly suppressed.

Even as the original voting day neared on 21 February, concerns about coronavirus had been rising, although the efforts of some officials to explain away the low turnout because of the epedemic were overstated. Tehran has rightly pointed out that it finds it harder than other countries to deal with such a daunting public health crisis due to United States sanctions, which are hampering efforts to import vital medical supplies. In a welcome sign of solidarity in a region generally wracked by geopolitical crises, some neighbouring Gulf Co-operation Council countries have been stepping in to help. The UAE has twice dispatched planes with medical equipment. Qatar and Kuwait have also provided assistance. However, the United States has been true to its reputation as the ‘Great Satan’ by imposing even more sanctions. These moves may serve only to strengthen radicals’ resolve further.

Iran’s isolation from the mainstream of the global economy only partly explains why the virus has spread so rapidly and caused so much destruction. The authorities have been slow to act, reluctant to quarantine the holy city of Qom, where the local outbreak started, and only very belatedly closed down some popular shrines elsewhere. It was neighbouring countries which began to shut their borders with Iran in an effort to stem the contagion, rather than Tehran making proactive decisions of its own. Given the speed with which the Basij militia can disperse crowds on the streets of Iranian cities when it spots a political threat, this failure to impose more rigid social controls in response to a public health emergency can only be viewed as a strategic failure.

While the authorities will seek to place the majority of the blame for the Covid-19 crisis on forces beyond its control, the Iranian public is unlikely to be so understanding. The results of the eleventh Majlis elections may yet turn out to be a high watermark for the Islamic Republic’s conservatives.

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