How the Iranian regime has boxed itself in ahead of the crucial parliamentary elections

A low voter turnout at the weekend will be the latest indication that ordinary Iranians are just not happy with the regime in Tehran

A woman walks past a mural with the Iranian national flag in Tehran, on February 20, 2020 on the eve of parliamentary election.
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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must be nervous about low turnout at this weekend's legislative elections in Iran. These polls are a litmus test for the regime in Tehran, and for the country's supreme leader personally, given that he occupies the highest rank in the political order. Therefore, the proverbial buck stops with him, whether he likes it or not. Meanwhile, much of the outside world is eagerly watching as Iran’s trajectory is very much of interest to the rest of the international community.

Elections in Iran are rigidly regulated to the point of being nothing but mere political theatre to give pretence to the notion that the regime has popular legitimacy. Of some 7,000 aspiring candidates, about half have been told they are unsuitable to run. Even 75 currently serving parliamentarians, of the total 290 members, have suddenly been told they cannot seek re-election as they have fallen out of favour with the establishment since they last registered to run four years ago.

Meanwhile, Mr Khamenei and his cohorts in the government's hardline camp have other reasons to be nervous about the elections. They are the first time the Iranian public have been asked to go to the ballot box since separate anti-regime protests in November and January led to the deaths of hundreds of protesters. By most accounts, the turnout is expected to be historically low even as the authorities are likely to use every trick in their playbook to make the public participation appear bigger.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves as he meets with people in Tehran, Iran February 18, 2020. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

At this point, Mr Khamenei is not only facing the public's rebuff; he also knows full well about the deep-seated scepticism among the people regarding the morbid state of the country's political situation. In the midst of gloom and hopelessness that have never been this persuasive in Iranian society – exacerbated by the painful economic sanctions imposed by the Donald Trump administration – comes Mr Khamenei, asking the citizens to vote as a national duty. But the average Iranian has seemingly come to the conclusion that voting, or not, is less about patriotism than it is about dancing to Mr Khamenei's music.

Consider the reality of political power in the Islamic Republic. Mr Khamenei, who was chosen by a consensus by clerical elders in 1989, was never himself elected by the people to this most powerful of roles that he occupies. However, not only does he decide who can run for any office – through his control of the vetting process by the un-elected Guardian Council – but he can also veto literally anything any elected office puts forth as policy. If the president or Parliament seeks to change the country’s domestic or foreign policy course, the first test is to overcome Mr Khamenei’s veto power.

Put simply, the popular will comes second to the supreme leader’s wishes.

Given this reality, the Iranian public has become deeply cynical. In particular, the younger generation is no longer willing to play along with what is essentially a charade. And that is the logic behind talk of a historic low turnout.

This scepticism is not limited to the public only. President Hassan Rouhani has in the last hour been pushing the message that the powers of the Guardian Council be curbed. Mr Rouhani has implicitly criticised Mr Khamenei’s insistence to engineer the outcome of the election – but his jabs are unmistakable. He has said, for instance, that the country “cannot be governed by one political wing alone".

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid/File Photo/File Photo

That said, Mr Rouhani’s call for a referendum to change political course has been dismissed as little more than showmanship on his part. So has his proposal to limit the Guardian Council's powers to filter out candidates. The fact that he has been president since 2013 but waited until a few weeks before the legislative elections to come up with catchy slogans shows that he is not serious in his call for reform. Besides, the head of the Guardian Council Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati answers to only one man – and that is Mr Khamenei. And he has decided to micro-manage the elections to make sure hardliners control the body.

By and large, prominent reformist personalities now openly accept that the process no longer appeals to the general public.

Mostafa Moeen, a former reformist presidential candidate, pointed out that Mr Khamenei has decided that the republic can only survive if the entire regime is in the hands of hardliners. Meanwhile, the most common prediction in Tehran is that the next parliament – called the Majlis – will be the weakest ever. One such voice is Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, the former head of the Majlis committee on national security and foreign affairs, who warned that "extremists" will take over the Majlis. Mr Falahatpisheh stressed that the legislature has power in name only, and that its policy recommendations are often ignored by the other arms of the regime, such as the Office of the Supreme Leader.

Meanwhile, Mr Khamenei has prepared a simple blueprint to survive in the short term – in close policy co-ordination with the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's powerful paramilitary volunteer militia: any anti-regime protest will be crushed, and any political change will be instigated from top-down and not bottom-up. This means that Mr Khamenei might accept the need for some concessions but the regime will not make overt shifts in the course of its hitherto policies. Mr Khamenei thinks that is tantamount to demonstrating weakness.

This handout picture provided by the Islamic Consultative Assembly News Agency (ICANA) on January 7, 2020 shows Iranian lawmakers raising their hands to vote during a parliamentary session in Tehran. - Iran's parliament passed a bill designating all US forces "terrorists" over the killing of a top Iranian military commander in a US strike last week. Under the newly adopted bill, all US forces and employees of the Pentagon and affiliated organisations, agents and commanders and those who ordered the "martyrdom" of Soleimani were designated as "terrorists". (Photo by - / ICANA NEWS AGENCY / AFP)

In late 1978, just months before he was driven out of power, the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi said on national television that he had “heard the people’s revolution” and was ready to make changes. Mr Khamenei will not say anything of the sort. Instead, his gameplan is to merely make tactical changes to reduce the pent-up frustration in society while pretending that public anger and the anti-regime protests are all part of a foreign-led plot.

Another detectable strategy is to present the people with a bad choice and one that is worse. The “bad choice” is being patient and accepting the state of affairs, given that the country is essentially at war with the US. This, according to those in power, this will soon blow over and the republic will survive. The “worse choice” is that the "foreign-led plot" succeeds and Iran becomes another Syria. In fact, the prospects of a civil war and the potential “Syriasation” of Iran have become talking points by key officials in the regime.

Mr Khamenei and the IRGC are hoping that by invoking images of a civil war, instigated by foreigners, they can demobilise a significant part of Iran's citizenry. The regime’s calculation is simple: it knows that Iranians are angry with the state of affairs but would fear the potential for a civil war breaking out more than having to live under the regime.

However, the regime's playbook does not provide a long-term solution to the country's challenges. The bottlenecks within the political structure are ailments, remedies for which include genuine soul-searching and ushering in reforms.

Mr Khamenei’s micro-managing of the elections, though, shows he is not yet ready to take that plunge.

Born in Tehran, Alex Vatanka is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. His forthcoming book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: Political Rivalry and Foreign Policy since 1979