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Source: Washington Post

Mar 3, 2024

Iran stages a dismal election as Islamic regime circles the wagons

Analysis by Ishaan Tharoor Columnist

Voter turnout in elections in Iran hit what appears a historic low.

According to unofficial accounts, only about 40 percent of the electorate cast a ballot Friday in separate votes for the country’s national parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the political body that will select the successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s 84-year-old supreme leader.

An opposition boycott and widespread disenchantment set the mood, even as the theocratic regime pushed its citizens to come out to the polls.

“If the election is weak, everyone will be hurt,” Khamenei cajoled Iranians ahead of the vote last week. “I am not accusing anyone, but I remind everyone that we should look at the elections from the perspective of our national interests.”

That message didn’t quite resonate, and even elicited something of a backlash. The turnout numbers may mark the lowest since the 1979 revolution that brought the Islamic regime into power.

In Tehran, the capital, as little as 11 percent of the electorate may have voted. Ordinary Iranians signaled their despair at a miserable economy, their anger over the repression of landmark protests in 2022, and their cynicism about a regime that disqualified myriad candidates who were not in Khamenei’s hard-line camp from contesting seats.

“Voting has no value when we have no voice. It has no effect on our lives,” Massoud, identified as a 26-year-old university student, told the Financial Times. “Voting will give a sense of security to those who won’t even listen to us once the elections are over. By not voting, at least I can signal that I am not supporting them.”

Khamenei and his loyalists were deeply aware of this potential impact.

Some conservative lawmakers urged Iranians to not only vote, but also to bring 10 friends with them. To gin up enthusiasm, certain public celebrations — including scenes on social media of supporters of local candidates dancing outside to loud music — were permitted in a country where such displays are often restricted.

None of that seemed to give the mullahs in power much of a boost. Iran is still scarred by the fallout from a historic protest movement that followed the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old student, who was in the custody of the morality police for improperly wearing a hijab.

News of her death triggered an astonishing social uprising, with women burning their headscarves on the street and many voicing calls not simply for reform of the regime, but for a wholesale defenestration of the ruling clerics.

The demonstrations were met with brutality, with hundreds killed by security forces and thousands detained.

Numerous activists and civil society figures languish behind bars. They include Shervin Hajipour, the Grammy award-winning Iranian musician whose song “Baraye” became the unofficial anthem of the protest movement.

He announced on the day of the elections that the regime had sentenced him to three years in prison for “provoking people to riot to disturb national security.”

“Since the protest movement, government crackdowns on free speech and dissent have intensified. Rates of executions increased, conservative laws have been tightened and repressive tactics are on the rise, according to rights groups and activists,” explained my colleague Susannah George. “The country’s economy, meanwhile, continues to fail. Prices have soared as the value of the country’s currency has plummeted.”

Even once-prominent regime officials recognize the flimsiness of the election.

Iran, said former president Mohammad Khatami, according to local media, is “far away from free, participatory and competitive elections.”

A more recent former president, Hassan Rouhani, was disqualified from running for the Assembly of Experts and said the regime’s habit of eliminating anyone outside its chosen candidates will “undermine the nation’s confidence in the system.”

When Rouhani was president, he was seen as a potential successor to Khamenei — a supposed “moderate” who could more productively work with the West but was also part of the regime’s old guard. His sidelining demonstrates the extent to which Khamenei and his clique have tightened their grip on the reins of power and further dispensed with the trappings of democracy for which the regime often congratulates itself.

“For years, the autocratic Islamic Republic could claim a small degree of legitimacy by pointing to the existence of a so-called ‘reformist’ faction within the regime,” noted Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute think tank. But Khamenei, he argued, “no longer takes any chances.”

“He is focused on consolidating control in the hands of the very few hardline loyalists whom he wants in positions of power when he eventually dies,” Vatanka wrote. “The Iranian people can see through this mockery and refuse to play Khamenei’s cynical game.”

Khamenei has circled the wagons at a time when ordinary Iranians are suffering a grim economic toll.

The reimposition of sanctions by the Trump administration — a move that smashed the nuclear deal brokered between Iran and world powers and has led to Iran once more revving up its uranium enrichment capacities — has unquestionably hurt Iranian society. About 20 percent of the country’s middle class has slumped below the poverty line, while 80 percent of Iranians rely on some form of government handout.

But the sanctions, argue the authors of a new book critical of the measures, have not put much of a dent in the regime’s control. Members of the influential, hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have enriched themselves through the black market even as the country’s public- and private-sector companies struggle.

Economic deprivation also may have limited the scope of the uprising in 2022, with few calls for mass strikes at a time of insecurity and a weakened middle class.

“Iran is a great case study to actually look at this now-powerful and often-used tool of American foreign policy, and to examine, does it work and does it not work?”

Vali Nasr, one of the book’s co-authors, told me at a recent panel hosted at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “And what we found is that it works in ways that we don’t want it to work. And it doesn’t work in the ways that we want it to work.”

Ishaan Tharoor is a foreign affairs columnist at The Washington Post, where he authors the Today's WorldView newsletter and column. In 2021, he won the Arthur Ross Media Award in Commentary from the American Academy of Diplomacy. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.Twitter

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