Reformists are dispirited and hard-liners resurgent ahead of Iran’s election

Some elected officials in Tehran are concerned that the security forces are gaining too much control over the political decision-making process. But reformists have been stymied by missteps of their own, as well as by US policy.

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Ahead of a parliamentary election later this month, there is widespread disillusionment among Iranian voters. The nuclear deal that Tehran concluded with world powers in 2015 is hanging by a thread, and the economy is being throttled by unprecedented American sanctions. Across the country, security forces have clashed with protesters disgruntled at economic and political conditions. And while Iran and the United States have pulled back from the brink of war, tensions remain high.

All of this has fuelled the more hard-line factions in Tehran who blame President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist politician first elected in 2013 promoting an agenda of economic reforms and potential détente with the US, for the country’s ills. By contrast, supporters of Rouhani, who include both moderate conservatives and reformists, are exhausted, frustrated, and increasingly hopeless. Many of them may well decide to stay home rather than participate in the ballot on 21 February, when all 290 seats in Iran’s parliament will be up for grabs.

This dynamic stands in stark contrast to Iran’s last presidential election, in 2017, when Rouhani won a second term in office. While Iranians were anxious then about the policy that might emerge from President Donald Trump’s new administration in Washington, there was a broad sense of optimism among Rouhani’s supporters that Iran could still use the nuclear deal to rehabilitate its economy, broaden diplomatic engagement with the US, and remove the shadow of war.

Yet none of that came to pass. The Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed devastating sanctions. According to World Bank estimates, Iran’s economy contracted by nearly 9 percent in 2019. The World Bank forecasts zero GDP growth in Iran this year and just 1 percent growth in 2021, although further sanctions could even dampen that projection.

Supporters of relatively hard-line and radical factions, galvanised by Soleimani’s assassination and their opposition to Rouhani, are likely to turn out in force at the ballot box

Unrest over the past three months has put even more pressure on the Rouhani administration, raising the stakes ahead of next week’s vote. In November, widespread protests erupted across the country against the government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies. Security forces responded with an internet blackout and a brutal crackdown that killed at least 300 people, according to human rights groups.

Then, in January, the country’s mood shifted dramatically when the US assassinated Iran’s top military commander, General Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike in Baghdad. Soleimani oversaw the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC. Although the Trump administration officially designated the IRGC a foreign terrorist group in 2019, many Iranians see Soleimani as a war hero who fought against the Islamic State group in Iraq and helped keep the jihadist group away from Iran’s borders. In a display of national unity that would otherwise have been unlikely in the aftermath of the recent protests, unexpectedly large crowds turned out for Soleimani’s funeral processions, including in southwestern Khuzestan province, the site of some of the most heated anti-government demonstrations in November. Soleimani’s killing also boosted support within the Iranian political leadership for a more confrontational stance on the US, most immediately by launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles at military bases in Iraq hosting US troops.

The national mood changed again just hours after that attack, when Iran accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner over Tehran, killing all 176 people onboard. It took three days for the IRGC to admit responsibility in a televised apology, and protesters again poured into the streets of Iranian cities, furious at the apparent cover-up. Demonstrators demanded high-level resignations, and some even called for the downfall of the entire political establishment, echoing the November protests.

Iran’s grave mistakes in the days after the jet’s downing exposed deep rifts among the political elite. The IRGC effectively admitted to withholding information from Rouhani, whose government maintained for days that the plane went down due to a technical issue. Recent reports suggest that senior figures in the government had more initial clues about the incident than they let on, but were engaged in a fierce debate over how to respond. The New York Times has reported that Rouhani threatened to resign unless Iran openly accepted responsibility. After the Iranian authorities came clean, a senior adviser to Rouhani warned on Twitter, “beware of cover-ups and military rule.”

This series of events reinforced long-standing concerns among some elected officials in Tehran that the IRGC is gaining too much control over the political decision-making process. But reformists have been stymied by missteps of their own, as well as by US policy. Rouhani had promised that a compromise with the West over Iran’s nuclear programme could lead to economic prosperity, but his initial successes in reducing inflation and boosting trade and foreign investment were undone by Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions.

In response to Trump’s self-declared campaign of “maximum pressure”, a consensus is emerging between hard-liners in the IRGC and the so-called “principalists” – a conservative faction that emphasises adherence to the original values of Iran’s 1979 revolution – that confrontation with the US and defiance in the face of sanctions are the only paths for the Islamic Republic’s survival. In a bid to shore up leverage against Washington and its Western allies, some parliamentarians recently proposed withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a measure that has some backing even from supporters of the nuclear deal.

Despite the botched response to the downing of the Ukrainian jet, the IRGC appears to retain the support of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. In a rare sermon in mid-January, he vowed that the “only way ahead for the Iranian nation is to become strong” and gave his full backing to the IRGC. He also urged Iranians to take part in the upcoming parliamentary election, noting that “the presence of the people in elections insures the country and disappoints the enemy”.

Yet this call for voter participation stands in contrast to the recent decision by Iran’s Guardian Council – which is largely appointed by the supreme leader and charged with vetting candidates for elections – to disqualify thousands of nominees, including 90 incumbent legislators. The vast majority of the disqualified candidates were relatively moderate conservatives and reformists who backed Rouhani. While the Iranian parliament has been increasingly sidelined in the decision-making process of late, a swing to hard-line control could make life even more difficult for Rouhani’s administration.

Nevertheless, the reformists’ own shortcomings have also contributed to widespread disenchantment among their supporters ahead of elections. The so-called “List of Hope” candidates who were elected in the last parliamentary election, in 2016, backed by popular reformist figures like former President Mohammad Khatami, have largely failed to open up political space. Many of Rouhani’s original backers blame these elected officials for not doing more to protect protesters in November and push for accountability over their killings. Some voters and activists in the reformist movement have debated for months whether to boycott the upcoming election.

Meanwhile, supporters of relatively hard-line and radical factions, galvanised by Soleimani’s assassination and their opposition to Rouhani, are likely to turn out in force at the ballot box. Their numbers shouldn’t be underestimated. In 2017, 16 million people voted for conservative presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, who was later appointed by Khamenei as the head Iran’s powerful judiciary.

A new parliament controlled by hard-liners could foreshadow a similar shift in the upcoming presidential election, in 2021. Despite its stated goal of changing Iranian behaviour, the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign has only placed the two sides closer than ever to direct conflict, while allowing Iran’s hard-liners to tighten their grip on power. This trajectory in Iran’s domestic politics will no doubt have a major impact on any future negotiations between Iran and Western powers.

This commentary was originally published in World Politics Review.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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