Author: Levan Asatiani, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Georgia to the Islamic Republic of Iran (2004-2009)

The results of the parliamentary elections of the Islamic Republic of Iran have not yet been announced officially (11 constituencies need to conduct voting again); however, according to the already published results, the Conservatives will be getting 219 mandates in the 290 mandate Majlis, the so-called Reformers got only 20 mandates, with 35 independent candidates also among the winners and a single mandate traditionally given to each religious minority – Zoroastrians, Armenian Christians and Jews.

The largest number of votes in Tehran was given to the former mayor of city and one of the candidates for the presidency in the 2013 elections, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. The experts believe that he will be the successor of the incumbent Speaker of Majlis, Ali Larijani. In 2000-2005, Ghalibaf was the Minister of Internal Affairs of Iran, also serving as the Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Air Forces in the following years. Ghalibaf has an interesting hobby – in order to not forget his original profession, he sometimes flies planes (civilian Boeings).

The Majlis elections this year were held in a highly important period for the country, coinciding with severely aggravated domestic and foreign policy problems which would have definitely influenced the political orientation of elected MPs and the further formulation of the country’s foreign or domestic policy course.

The recent complications in foreign relations between Iran and the West followed the US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of his country from the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action -JCPOA) and the re-imposition of crippling economic sanctions against Iran. This dealt a heavy blow to the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, and his Cabinet whose main achievement was considered to be the aforementioned agreement with the West. These developments also damaged Iran’s economy which mainly depends on revenues from exporting oil. As a result, social problems were soon exacerbated in the country – the devaluation of Iran’s national currency, the rial, led to a sharp increase in the prices of goods. The situation came to a point when Iran’s statistics service stopped publishing economic data about the country.

The US was pushing its Western allies towards similar action which the European Union member states did not receive particularly enthusiastically – they started looking for alternative, compromise ways for saving the 5+1 format nuclear agreement and maintaining economic relations with Iran.

Iran demonstratively responded to the dragged-out process of the EU’s attempts at formulating mechanisms for reaching a compromise by gradually withdrawing from the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) which was manifested in the partial reinstatement of the uranium enrichment program. Iran notified the signatories of the agreement: Germany, the UK, China and Russia that it was stopping the fulfillment of certain obligations under the agreement; namely, refusing to maintain the limits of uranium and heavy water reserves.

According to the explanation given by Iranian diplomats involved in the nuclear talks, their response measures were caused by the withdrawal of one of the parties, the United States, from the international agreement (JCPOA). It must be pointed out that the agreement contained clauses determining situations when one of the parties of the agreement would violate its conditions.

These steps taken by the US have their own logic – the biggest beneficiary of the abolition of economic sanctions and the un-freezing of hundreds of millions of oil dollars in Western banks was Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps and the management of its special Quds Force. Iran’s military activation towards Syria-Iraq further complicated its relations with the US, some European countries and especially with Israel and Turkey. Russia, yet another player in the Middle East, used these confrontations very well and further strengthened its positions in Syria and the region as a whole.

General Soleimani of the Quds Force, with its special forces, aided by Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias, offered the most serious military resistance to the terrorist organization Islamic State in its peak period (2011-2016) when its leader Al-Baghdadi was trying to create a Sunni-Arab caliphate on the territories of Iraq and Syria (which was quite realistic at the time). In that period, the interests of the Iranians coincided with those of the United States and General Soleimani cooperated with US intelligence services rather effectively. He rose to be the most influential military commander in the region and gained considerable popularity both in his own country as well as Iraq (on the issue of resolving the results of the Kurdish referendum) and Syria.

After the weakening of the Islamic State (caliphate) and the partial withdrawal of US forces from Syria, General Soleimani, who was fighting for the survival of Bashar Assad’s Allawi regime, started cooperating with Russia to accomplish this goal which possibly played the decisive role in his future actions. Given the malformed and weak central government, the influence of Iran and General Soleimani personally was so big in Iraq that it irritated local Shia Muslims (followers of Ayatollah Sadr) which fueled an attack by Iraqis on the Iranian Consulate in the city of Najaf where a holy place for Shia Muslims is located; namely, the grave of Imam Ali. General Soleimani tried to direct the aggression of the Iraqis towards the US policy in the region. The result of this was that the already frenzied crowds attacked the US Embassy. The missile attack on the US military bases in Syria, conducted by Soleimani’s allied forces from the territory of Iraq, caused a sharp reaction by President Trump, ending with the death of the General.

The funeral of General Soleimani, proclaimed as a national hero by the spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, produced casualties as several people died in a stampede. This tragedy was complemented by the confrontation with the police by crowds of people protesting against social problems (growth of oil prices). At first, the protests resembled a campaign encouraged by the Conservative circles against President Rouhani’s reformist Cabinet; however, during the increasingly large mass protests, social slogans were substituted by ones directed against the regime, the Islamic Republic System and its leader – Ayatollah Khamenei.

The regime confronted thousands-strong protests in Tehran and other large Iranian cities through counter-protests by its considerable number of supporters. The protests   then turned into clashes with the members of the so-called Basij (para-military volunteer militias connected to the Revolutionary Guard Corps). According to various estimations, the casualties of these clashes ranged from several hundred to 1,500 people.

Soon, a new scandal arose in the country:  a Ukrainian passenger airline, carrying Ukrainian, Canadian and Iranian citizens (mostly students) that had just taken off from Tehran airport, was shot down as a result of a missile attack by Iran’s air defense unit. Iran was silent for several days, not revealing that the catastrophe was a result of a mistake made by the country’s air defense system.

Photo: AFP

The funeral of the deceased Iranian students turned into a powerful protest. This was complemented with the previously unheard of criticism towards the domestic and foreign policies of the regime and its leader, Khamenei, ahead of the elections, causing an unprecedented mobilization within the regime. The Guardian Council that is responsible for elections, led by Ayatollah Jannati, refused registration in electoral lists to numerous incumbent MPs and other supporters of the reformer wing for varied reasons.

The elections held in such a situation coincided with the quick spreading of the novel coronavirus brought to the country from China with a growing number of lethal results, especially in the religious center of Iran, the holy city of Qom, which the government was covering up diligently. The numbers disseminated in social media caused panic which influenced the number of those participating in voting.

It must be pointed out that even before the appearance of the coronavirus in the country, the polls conducted in Tehran showed that 81% of those polled (43,000 respondents) did not plan on participating in the elections.

The spiritual leader of the country, Ayatollah Khamenei, appeared on state TV twice during the elections and called on the population to participate. The election commission extended the working time of the polling stations twice, two additional hours each time. At the end of the day, the government TV channels showed queues of those wishing to vote standing outside the polling station that were located in mosques…

As already pointed out above, given the situation accompanying the elections, the political landscape of the country will definitely change. The factual collapse of the nuclear agreement with the West, the re-instatement of economic sanctions by the US and the killing of General Soleimani enabled the regime to shed the influence of the so-called reformers in Majlis.

As a result, tens of former Cabinet members or provincial governors of the former ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have already obtained guaranteed seats in the Majlis. As Iran’s political experience shows, even the small number of independent politicians and moderates, who enter the newly elected Majlis, will have to review their stances and re-group.

President Rouhani was forced to hear severe criticism from the now disbanded Majlis. Much more serious criticism awaits him in the newly elected Parliament. If we take into account the rumors disseminated several times about his resignation, it could be that the newly elected hardliner MPs will officially initiate his impeachment procedure.

The spiritual leader of the country, Ayatollah Khamenei, will probably not support such an initiative. Rouhani will be much more useful for the Conservatives as a scapegoat during his remaining tenure.

In order to save face, President Rouhani will have to switch to sharply anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric which will severely limit the possibility of negotiations during the current or future, probably already conservative, presidential tenure.