The week-long campaigning period for Iran’s Parliamentary upcoming Feb. 21 election kicked off last Thursday as more than 7,000 hopeful candidates began the race to join the country’s Majlis. However, as thousands started the process of wooing voters, a similar number were also barred from taking part in the exercise. The Guardian Council, a 12-member body with six selected by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, disqualified around 6,850 potential contestants on grounds such as “lack of commitment to Islam,” according to its mandate.
Iran’s Reformist vs. ‘Principle-ist’ Rivalry
It follows a long history of rivalry between the reformist and the principle-ist (as the conservatives there are often referred to as) factions in the Islamic Republic with each side vying for influence, and the latter often resorting to using institutions to their advantage.
Currently, the moderates’ coalition occupies 120 of the 290 seats in the lower house, eclipsing the principle-ist’s total of 86. Meanwhile, some 66 are independent. But it doesn’t take long to change fortunes, especially considering the recent events such as the growing disillusionment with those in power as well as the global headwinds.
That frustration has been visible through mass protests first in late 2017 over the government’s economic policies. Then again in 2019 when an increase in fuel prices triggered huge demonstrations which led to a complete internet shutdown and over 1,000 killed, according to some reports. Leader Hassan Rouhani’s troubles were multiplied after citizens took to the streets in the wake of Iran’s shooting down of a civilian airliner that killed all 176 people on board.
The reformist president has been dealt with blow after blow, especially as tensions with the United States grow. After Washington blatantly killed Iran’s most recognizable military hero General Qasem Soleimani and escaped any serious consequence, millions of Iranians came out to mourn him and seek revenge. That sentiment was echoed further by the conservatives, who have traditionally held an anti-American stance. But up until now, such voices were sidelined by many in the public as they voted against the hardliners and brought in the moderates to power.
For more than six years under Rouhani’s Moderation and Development Party, Iran’s economy has lagged behind mostly for reasons beyond his control. But the “behind the scenes” factors don’t matter much to the voters as they want results from leaders. On that front, the head of state has been disappointing. Last year, Iran’s growth rate plunged to a negative 9.5% while oil sales have tumbled, too. No wonder the president has been in an extremely tough spot of late. Just this past Saturday Rouhani even addressed rumors of stepping down by vowing to complete his term.
Iranian Elections: a Checked History
This is not to say the practice of vetting and disqualifying moderate candidates is anything new: in the 2016 elections, only 6,229 of the 12,123 Majlis hopefuls were able to make the cut, representing a historically low approval rate of just 51.4%. But unlike four years ago, the local and international political currents are completely different. Back then, the Iran nuclear Deal, or JCPOA, was barely three-months old and had given Iranian citizens the hope that rapprochement with Washington and the West at large is the right move which will bring in economic benefits, and pave their country’s re-entry to the international system. However, today they are disillusioned since despite Tehran holding its end of the bargain, no relief has come through and even stricter sanctions are now in place.
Hence, anti-American rhetoric has been on the rise which comes amid Khamenei’s statement that “the next parliament was no place for those scared of speaking out against foreign enemies.” Therefore, who the Iranians vote to power will not only determine the country’s internal laws but also shape the foreign policy, and potentially bring it to pursue a more hostile course of action vis-a-vis the United States. The elections also further raise the prospect of Tehran restarting their nuclear weapons program, something they have already shown the signs of as Iran recently removed the cap for uranium enrichment.
In these circumstances, one is reminded of the famous book All International Politics is Local by Kristian Skrede Gleditsch and how in the case of Iran, it is the complete opposite: All Local Politics is International.