Iranians Go To The Polls – And The World Watches

Iran’s parliamentary election look set to return a large conservative majority – an outcome that would strengthen the hand of hard-line elements in the Islamic Republic at the expense of moderates and relative liberals. At a point of high tension in the region, the outcome of this election will likely have implications beyond Iran’s borders.

With a complex backdrop of proxy wars, a ‘cold war’ with Saudi Arabia, and American economic sanctions, this election comes at a pivotal time for Iran. Experts predict that the vote will reflect deep divisions within Iranian society, whilst to some extent predicting future developments in the country’s foreign policy.

Elections in Iran are far from transparent and representative. They do, however, give international observers some insight into trends within Iranian society – and in particular, on the views of average Iranians in regards to their government. Iranian voters and politicians fall (broadly) into two groups; the first being a reformist ‘liberal’ faction, that boasts among its ranks the current Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, the architect of the Iran nuclear deal. The second group – the more regime-aligned conservative faction – seems set to win big, with polls predicting conservative control of over two-thirds of the 290 seats in Iran’s Majlis (parliament).

Whether this outcome would represent public approval of the regime and its foreign policy is up for question – many liberal Iranians are boycotting what they perceive to be a rigged election, and many more profess apathy concerning a vote which will likely bring about little meaningful change for them. Reformist activist Saeed Shariati, for example, claimed that 78% of eligible voters in Tehran did not vote despite a call from the Ayatollah to do so. Furthermore, many reformist candidates were barred from running by the regime’s ‘Guardian Council’ – a group of religious leaders aligned with the Ayatollah who have the power to vet electoral candidates. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described the election as a ‘sham’, whilst Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has claimed that Iran’s elections are symbolic of Iranian sovereignty and that Iranians ‘do not allow a person sitting in Washington to make decisions for them’.

Of those who did vote, voting patterns may suggest frustration at the failure of rapprochement with the West, a key policy of Iranian moderates, as well as a desire to support the regime in the face of perceived foreign aggression. Should the polling predictions be correct, supporters of the Ayatollah would control all the main offices of the state except the presidency.

Whilst in some ways the Majlis is a relatively toothless organisation, a conservative parliamentary landslide may nevertheless have implications both nationally and regionally.

A parliament loyal to the Ayatollahs would likely support a more hawkish foreign policy line consisting of, for example, greater displays of Iranian power abroad, increased funding for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and an increased unwillingness to respond to requests for de-escalation. This might lead to a ramping up of Iranian support for anti-Western elements, shows of military force against Western military targets, and an escalation of Iran’s contest for regional hegemony with Saudi Arabia. Whilst final authority has always been the right of Iran’s supreme leader, a more pliant parliament might work to the Ayatollah’s advantage and lend a democratic mandate to his decisions.

Domestically, a conservative parliament may be more willing to accelerate Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons capability, a process which would likely provoke a greater yet response from the US and its backers. Conservative control will pave the way to a more conservative domestic agenda that, more so than before, prioritises stability over personal freedoms.

A conservative victory in the polls may well result in a more hawkish and assertive Iran and a yet greater destabilisation of an already febrile Middle East. It is for this reason that other international actors must make an effort – more so than before – to focus on peacebuilding and reconciliation where appropriate, and to counter Iranian influence in as non-provocative a way as possible where a more diplomatic solution is out of the question. The failure of Iran’s moderates is, arguably, partly the result of the abandonment by America of a peacemaking stance towards the Islamic Republic. Perhaps the best way to strengthen their hand again is through a renewed attempt at a firm yet fair negotiation with the regime, in the interests of regional peace and reconciliation.