Thursday, 23rd January 2020

Volatility challenges continuity as Iranians prepare for elections

Heightened tensions with the United States since President Donald Trump came to power in 2017 have undermined the Iranian economy, squeezing many incomes to breaking point. Much worse could be to come. The steady escalation underlined by the killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC)’s Quds Force commander General Qassim Soleimani and attacks on US facilities in Iraq could yet lead to all-out conflict, despite calls for cool heads and de-escalation (GSN 1,095/1).

Within Iran, the crisis has delivered greater influence for hardline, conservative elements in the regime. With the Islamic Republic seen to be under attack, strident claims to patriotism often drown out more moderate voices – and radical voices seem likely to ring out again when the eleventh Majlis-e Shura-ye Eslami (parliament) elections are held on 21 February.

In parallel to the mass outpourings for the ‘martyr’ Soleimani – a title the charismatic general would surely have adored – the Iranian public is driven to express their dissatisfaction with the regime and its poor performance. Inflation now stands at about 40%/yr (GSN 1,095/13). Along with endemic corruption and a sense that the authorities are more intent on looking after their own than on meeting the wider population’s needs, economic strains have fed into waves of protests. In December 2017-January 2018 corruption, nepotism and lack of jobs were the focus for protestors (GSN 1,051/1), while demonstrations that began in mid-November followed a sharp and unexpected fuel subsidy cut (GSN 1,093/13). Protests that followed the 8 January shooting down by IRGC elements of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 targeted regime incompetence and the radical roots of Iran’s isolation.

Expressions of popular discontent have been forcefully suppressed by experienced security forces. In a volatile atmosphere, IRGC and other ‘revolutionary’ elements are generally seen to remain firmly in control of the most important levers of state power.

To maintain the status quo, conservatives appear to be taking few chances with the Majlis-e Shura-ye Eslami election. The majority of applicants to run in the February polls have been excluded, following the usual two-stage vetting by the Ministry of Interior (MoI) and Guardian Council. Just over 16,000 candidates initially registered to compete, of whom 848 later chose to withdrew. The MoI approved 13,849 of the remaining applicants, but the list was then whittled down by the Guardian Council to around 5,000.

Some 90 sitting members of parliament are reportedly among those barred from running. Some had already ruled themselves out, including speaker Ali Larijani, Hope faction leader Mohammad Reza Aref and outspoken female MP Parvaneh Salahshouri.

Disqualified candidates – whose numbers apparently include President Hassan Rouhani’s son-in-law Kambiz Mehdizadeh – have the right of appeal, but in the past that has rarely led to a change of heart. A final list of approved candidates is due to be released by 11 February, to be followed by a short formal election campaign for the 290 seats.

The Majlis-e Shura has an important role in domestic politics, at times causing difficulties for the government. But this election is probably more significant for the signal it will send about popular attitudes to the regime. Turnout will be a critical measure, as moderate, reform-minded Iranians may stay away from polling stations if they perceive a sham exercise. Some critics, such as jailed opposition figure Abolfazl Ghadyani, have already called for a boycott.

Conservative factions could welcome low turnout among the regime’s critics, which they will counter by getting their base to vote, and thereby to deliver a slate of hardline MPs. A more hardline parliament would make things even harder for Rouhani and his allies, let alone for more radical advocates of change.

But all will be operating in an environment where Tehran’s position as an unpredictable actor mounting a ‘forward defence’ – as relished by Soleimani – will be challenged by the even more unpredictable Trump. Indeed, if Trump is re-elected for a second term in November, the Iranian authorities may find they have few options left but to start negotiating or fight.

Some influential figures in Tehran will no doubt push for a rapid ramp-up of Iran’s nuclear research activities before that happens – pointing to Trump’s far softer approach towards North Korea once it got a bomb – while conservatives know that preparations must be made to establish an eventual successor to Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Viewed from the leadership’s comfortable abodes, a pliant parliament will make these issues easier to deal with for ‘revolutionary’ factions that have no intention of ceding power.

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