What Impact Could Parliamentary Elections Have on US-Iranian Relations?
In Iran, attention is now shifting onto elections being held in February as all 290 parliamentary seats are being contested. The standoff between the US and the Islamic Republic is likely to influence voting intentions, and whatever the result, it will determine the future direction of US-Iranian relations.
President Hassan Rouhani’s landmark achievement was the 2015 Iran Deal he signed with former US President Barack Obama, but since Donald Trump scrapped the agreement, America’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ has led to anger at the establishment among many citizens.
The mid-November protests, which resulted in hundreds of demonstrators being killed by security forces, showed that this event drastically changed the attitude of many politicians and people towards elections in their country. Radio Farda reported that on December 8th, a pro-reform website called Asr Iran ran an opinion poll asking voters which candidates they are likely to vote for. Over 63 percent of the 24,000 people who participated in the poll ticked ‘none of the above’, which was their way of saying they will not vote at all.
Some reformist politicians like Mostafa Tajzadeh and Abbas Abdi insist that there is no way out of Iran’s ongoing problems other than resorting to ballot boxes. But it is hard to make this argument to people when they perceive Rouhani as a liar.
During the 2017 presidential election, the current President said if Iranians re-elected him, every single sanction that has been imposed on their country by the US will be lifted. Since then, the opposite has happened.
Furthermore, the reformists are losing celebrity support. A former football player called Ali Karimi and Reza Sadeghi, a famous singer, both wrote on social media that they regret supporting Rouhani two years ago. If Trump wanted his sanctions to decrease support for Iran’s government, he has succeeded in achieving his aim.
However, if ultra-conservatives, or principlists, perform well in February’s poll, the stalemate between Tehran and Washington is only likely to intensify. Those who fundamentally oppose Trump’s policy of lifting sanctions in favour of reducing Iran’s nuclear weapons are finding that their position is being strengthened. Jalal Mirzaei told an OPEC meeting that Trump becoming US President has weakened the reformists.
But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said US sanctions had been ‘incredibly effective’, so there is no chance of the Trump administration shifting its current stance any time soon.
Some of the principlists’ most notable candidates include a former military officer and an ex-mayor of Tehran named Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf; Vahid Yaminpour, a TV personality; and legal scholar Hamid Rasaei. If they win February’s election, then a lurch to the right risks emboldening the security services’ proxy forces in Yemen and Syria, raising the chances of a confrontation with the US.
Oil Minister Bijn Namdar Zanganeh, one of Rouhani’s closest allies, is being targeted by the ultra-conservatives for impeachment since a US ban on critical oil exports tipped the country into recession. This could cause the government to be overwhelmed by interrogations and weaken the Iranian President at a time when he is attempting to repair US-Iranian relations.
Mohammadali Abtahi, a reformist cleric jailed in 2009, told Shargh newspaper that ‘unpopular conservatives would only emerge as victorious if turnout is low.’ This is because hardliners traditionally vote under instruction from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Another factor going against the reformists is that Iran’s Guardian Council disqualified almost 3,000 of their candidates. Only 30 have been approved. Therefore, it will be harder for the reformists to contest all the 290 seats on offer.
Trump would do well to engage with Rouhani before February’s poll. Unfortunately, the US President’s actions are only likely to increase support for those who are principally opposed to American intervention at all, and that will make it harder for the Trump administration to reach an accord with Iran.