Iran election expected to heighten tension with West - analysis

Khamenei calls voting key to stopping ‘US, Zionist plots’

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani salutes the crowd during the commemoration of the 41st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2020 (photo credit: OFFICIAL PRESIDENT WEBSITE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani salutes the crowd during the commemoration of the 41st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2020
There are many questions about the outcome of Friday’s Iranian parliamentary elections, but virtually all predictions point to a turn toward greater conflict with the West.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared on Tuesday: “Taking part in the elections nullifies many of the vicious plots of the US and the Zionist regime against Iran. These #elections repel the schemes & ploys of the enemies of Iran.”
Khamenei appears ready to turn the clock back to the 2005-2013 era in which Iran’s parliament and presidency were run by hard-liners like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other IRGC members who loudly condemned the West.
The main uncertainties are what voter turnout will look like and whether Khamenei’s attempts to seize greater control of the parliament will succeed.
Khamenei’s speech on Tuesday appeared directed at fears that large segments of the population may boycott the election entirely to express their anger with disqualifications of some of their preferred candidates.
Some voters are also angry with the regime’s handling of mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian airliner full of mostly Iranian passengers as well as the regime’s killing of between 300 and 1,500 protesters against the rise of gasoline prices in November.
A low voter turnout would harm the regime’s legitimacy even if its preferred candidates won in the parliamentary elections.
Allies of Khamenei have acted more aggressively than usual leading up to this election to try to better ensure that hard-liners dominate the field.
They have disqualified a record number of candidates for parliament, including a large number of currently serving MPs.
Iran’s Guardian Council always disqualifies some candidates whose politics it objects to. However, usually it only disqualifies so-called reformist candidates who identify with the West and advocate transforming the current regime into a more Western-style democracy.
This round of disqualifications is unique because the Guardian Council has also nixed many candidates from the so-called “pragmatic” camp who support President Hassan Rouhani.
The pragmatic camp is loyal to Khamenei and does not wish to transform Iran into a Western country. Rather, it wishes only to have positive relations with the West to advance Iran’s own economic and other self-interests.
While there were contrary reports by observers on Tuesday about whether some of the disqualifications might be reversed, the only official word was that the massive disqualifications would stand.
Big gains by hard-liners would speed up the political demise of the country’s pragmatist politicians, who were weakened by the Trump administration’s May 2018 decision to quit the 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Iran.
It appears that anything other than taking a confrontational approach with the West is no longer acceptable to Khamenei, the Guardian Council and his allies in the IRGC.
If hard-liners associated with the IRGC and more directly controlled by Khamenei win more seats on Friday, they will also gain various advantages to replace Rouhani with a hard-liner in the 2021 contest for president, a position with wide influence over the country’s day-to-day affairs.
While some recent elections have seen voter turnout in the mid-60% range, some pragmatists and reformists have lost patience with the regime and, for the first time, are calling for an end to Khamenei’s rule instead of merely reforming the system from within.
In the large cities, these groups may boycott the elections.
However, hard-line politicians predicted turnout would still be strong because small villages vote in high numbers and are more widely supportive of the regime and the Islamic Revolution in general.
At one point, there was speculation either that hard-liners would continue to empower Rouhani to try to coax the West into ending sanctions or would try to impeach Rouhani in anger that his nuclear deal has not paid off.
Instead of these scenarios, many of the latest predictions this week were that Khamenei’s supporters want to dominate parliament but keep Rouhani in place as a scapegoat who they could continue to blame for Iran’s troubles.
Still, there have been elections where Khamenei backed a certain slate of candidates, and an opposing set performed unexpectedly well since Iran’s ruler meddles with the vote but usually allows aspects of free voting.
In recent decades, Khamenei has alternated between allowing eras in which reformers-pragmatists were given higher profiles, such as when Mohammad Khatami was president from 1997-2005 and Rouhani’s term since 2013, compared with hard-liner Ahmadinejad from 2005-2013 and an expected return to greater hard-line rule in 2020-2021.