By Kabir Taneja
The past two months have been eventful for Iran, with the killing of top military leader Gen. Qasem Soleimani in a US airstrike at Baghdad airport in Iraq pushing the region close to a war, culminating President Donald Trump’s years long grudge with Tehran. Now, after much needed de-escalation over the past few weeks, Iran is heading into polls on 21 February for its eleventh parliamentary elections in an extremely challenging political environment.
With an already layered power sharing structure, Soleimani’s death mixed with the earlier US withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement, strengthened sanctions by the Trump administration along with consistent delays in setting up of a Europe-led pressure-release valve known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX). This was to facilitate non-USD financial exchanges with Iran has emboldened the conservatives against the moderates and reformists (who also have sub-lobbies and interests within these broad constructs), such as President Hassan Rouhani.
As campaigning starts over the 290 Majlis seats, the Iranian parliament today is struggling and fighting to regain lost power and momentum over its reformist agendas. The country’s Guardian Council, led by Ayatollah Khamenei and six jurists, has rejected the candidature of 8,000 out of more than 14,000 candidates including more than 90 reformists and moderate incumbents, clearing the path for the conservatives who have had to swallow a bitter pill as Iran negotiated with the US over its nuclear program.
The outcome of the 2016 elections in Iran was in stark contrast of the prevailing situation today, both in Iran and its perpetrated arch nemesis, the US, which Tehran has maintained for decades is in for a regime change in the country. However, the 2016 elections ran successfully on the completion of the JCPOA nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries. The sanctions installed by the administration of then president Barack Obama till a large extent forced Iran to come to the negotiating table. Rouhani, along with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in July 2015 broke ground, coming to an agreement after marathon negotiations. The Ayatollah, facing an economic collapse and possibilities of an Arab Spring like revolt, was forced to go along with Rouhani’s plan.
However, the coming of Trump changed everything. In May 2018, Trump, a vocal critic of both the deal and Tehran, unceremoniously withdrew from the JCPOA, which was a poll promise of his to his voter base. The withdrawal, in turn, strengthened the conservative and the radical lobbies in Iran who perhaps were awaiting this moment in order to re-stamp their authority and drive home the long-standing opinion that the US (and ally Israel) had no intensions of peace with the country.
Rouhani as a result found himself in a challenging position. In 2017, protests broke out in various parts of Iran led by rising prices and economic vows. Rouhani in a rare move, gave some precedence to the protests, and said that the people had a right to criticize the government, albeit in a peaceful manner and without damage to property. However, the challenges were only increasing. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), the military apparatus directly controlled by the Ayatollah was in an expansionist strategy outside Iranian borders, which demanded finances. So much so, that Iran had to shop for fighters in Afghanistan, to be deployed in Syria and Iraq, and even got criticism from Hezbollah for being spread too thin by deploying assets in these new and complex theatres.
Between all this, Rouhani found himself challenged from multiple positions. The Ayatollah believes that Rouhani was given support for a fair shot to make a deal with the US, and the withdrawal of the JCPOA by Trump was the example that the conservatives and right-wing lobbies needed to highlight that the US never has had good intentions when it comes to the Iranian government or the Iranian people, both regionally and internationally, and take back the narrative.
The killing of Gen. Soleimani has only complicated things further. It has strengthened the conservatives, and marginalized the reformists, and how exactly does it affect public opinion is yet to be fully ascertained. If the large public show to commemorate Soleimani on the streets of Iran is to be used as a metric, whether orchestrated or otherwise, the killing of the leader of the Quds Force was perhaps fairly ill timed from an American perspective. The fallout of the Soleimani saga came to be even more detrimental, as the Iranian armed forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner, killing 176 people on board. The public reaction in Iran on the air crash was significant, disallowing attempts to cover up the mistake. As per one report, Rouhani threatened to resign as president if the mistake was not publicly acknowledged.
Loss of reformists in the Iranian parliament will be a big setback not just to Rouhani and Iran, but the global order as well. Murmurs of Rouhani resigning prior to the downing of the civilian aircraft from his post had been floating over the past two months, despite the president’s continuous denial of the same. A complete renovation of the construct of the Majlis from reformists to the conservatives and hardliners may ultimately be seen as the final lock on a window of opportunity for the Western world to reset the status quo of distrust prevailing since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Much of the responsibility of such a loss of a historic chance which was already set in motion will have to be shared by the Trump dispensation in Washington D.C.
Ultimately, the elections may be seen as a futile event by the Iranian people who continue to reel under a bad economy, rising prices, international sanctions and failure emitting from both conservatives and the reformists. This is coupled by a fumbling and erratic regional geo-political architecture. Most of the upcoming policies by Iran and the US regarding each other are going to be reactionary and with it also being an election year in the US, escalation may well be the flavor of the coming months.