In three weeks, Iranians will go to the polls to choose a new parliament. For President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate and ardent supporter of the now-moribund international agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program, the parliamentary vote on Feb. 21 could be the first note in his political swan song. With some 90 percent of Iran’s reform candidates disqualified in a decision issued by the hard-line Guardian Council this week and reformists threatening an election boycott, it seems highly unlikely that Iran’s pro-reform bloc will be able to stitch together much of a showing at the polls. That’s bad news for Iranians, and probably for Americans too.
The tattered state of Iran’s reformers, who are led by Rouhani, underscores the high cost of the Trump administration’s decision to assassinate the top Iranian military commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in early January. Any hope that the nuclear deal could be saved from the dumpster fire of Trump’s Iran policy was lost the day a U.S. drone strike took Soleimani out in Iraq. The latest machinations around the upcoming parliamentary elections suggest that before things get better in Iran, they are bound to get much worse. This is a problem Washington will have to face, whether it’s the Trump administration or a new Democratic administration this time next year.
With Soleimani gone and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in poor health and turning 81 in April, conservatives and hard-liners alike are closing ranks in anticipation of a major shakeup of the hierarchy in Tehran. The Guardian Council’s move to cut reformist and moderate candidates out of the competition for parliament’s 290 seats leaves roughly 5,000 revanchist candidates on the rolls, potentially positioning the hard-liners to dominate parliament for the next four years.
After the killing of Soleimani and massive protests in response to the shooting down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner near Tehran, for which the Iranian authorities initially refused to admit responsibility, it is clear that Iran’s reformists have run into a dead-end. They don’t appear to have contemplated a Plan B in the event that their highly risky investment of political capital in the nuclear deal went south. The costs of that miscalculation was also on display this week as Iranian lawmakers called for the ouster of one of the chief negotiators of the nuclear agreement, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, after he suggested in an interview with the German news outlet Der Spiegel that diplomacy with the U.S. may seem remote now while Trump is in office, but talks are not out of the question once Trump leaves the White House.
Nearly three years into his second presidential term, Rouhani is facing the possibility that the next parliament will do everything it can to dismantle the last vestiges of the movement for incremental change he has long championed. In a country where journalists, human rights advocates and activists of any kind are routinely arrested, it’s a stretch to call Rouhani a moderate. Still, other than Zarif, an American-educated diplomat, few Iranian politicians rivaled Rouhani’s credibility when it came to taking bold stances on opening up, even slightly, Iran’s political and economic institutions and promoting the possibility of détente with the United States. While Rouhani has continued to press publicly for Iranians to turn out for the polls, the trend lines on voter participation are pointing downward.
Under the Trump administration’s chaos theory of American diplomacy, the current political disarray in Iran might easily be misinterpreted as a sign that the theocratic regime is losing legitimacy and domestic support. Indeed, if Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s self-righteous tweets about the public backlash against the Iranian regime over the downing of the Ukrainian jet are to be believed, Tehran is inches away from a popular uprising. But even if the Trump administration is wrong now, what happens if its fantasy of political implosion and even regime collapse really does come true in the future?
Iran’s economy has already been pushed to the brink by renewed U.S. sanctions under Trump’s campaign of so-called “maximum pressure,” contracting by an estimated 9.5 percent in 2019. As some Iranian scientists have noted, Iran is also facing unprecedented stresses on its economy due to the government’s inability to manage shocks to the system due to climate change, including the “drying of lakes and rivers, dust storms, record-breaking temperatures, droughts, and floods.” Iran’s population is growing, set to reach some 84 million this year, but it has less arable land for cultivation than neighboring Afghanistan and more than twice the population.
It’s only a matter of time before Iran’s environmental degradation and economic decline metastasize into political entropy. This is not a scenario to welcome, as the Trump administration would. Especially if hard-liners emerge from February’s parliamentary vote with the upper hand, as expected, and are strengthened even more by the anticipated transition of power from Khamenei to his anointed successor as supreme leader, what then? Would a regime facing such domestic pressure seek to deescalate tensions with the United States, or ratchet them up in attempt to shore up its legitimacy?
Next, imagine what could happen in 2021, when Rouhani’s term ends. If a hard-liner wins the presidency, many Iranians might respond, as they did in 2009, with mass protests. Would the vestiges of the 2009 Green Movement be able to survive the inevitable state repression that would follow? The chances are slim.
Rather than weaken the regime, the things that the Trump administration wants to see in Iran—a choked economy, cracks in the political hierarchy—all have the effect of strengthening hard-liners. That only makes engagement with the U.S. harder, further undoing the positive effects of the nuclear deal. Short of a direct military confrontation with Iran, which Trump walked the U.S. to the edge of before backing off this month, the U.S. and Iran could soon be right back to square one in their standoff, with no diplomatic solution in sight.
Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.