U.S. Pressure Tilts the Political Balance Toward Iran's Hard-liners

7 MINS READJan 24, 2020 | 19:33 GMT
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses parliament in the capital of Tehran on Sept. 3, 2019.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses parliament in Tehran on Sept. 3, 2019. Following the recent spike in U.S. tensions, Iran's Feb. 21 elections will likely yield a more decisively hard-line parliament. 

(ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

On the heels of Soleimani's death, pending elections will likely yield a more decisively hard-line parliament. But lingering economic anxieties and anti-government sentiment will limit its effectiveness....

As the first parliamentary contest since the United States began ramping up its pressure campaign, Iran's Feb. 21 election will provide a key glimpse into Iranians' mixed feelings about the recent uptick in tensions between Washington and Tehran. On one hand, many Iranians criticize hard-line elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for incidents like the Jan. 8 strike on a Ukrainian passenger jet, which risked further alienating Iran from its allies and, in turn, the global economy. But by highlighting just how hostile U.S.-Iran relations have gotten, the U.S. assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has also made it clear that President Hassan Rouhani's more moderate approach to Washington's provocations isn't working either.

Against the backdrop of renewed U.S. threats, conservative candidates' promises of revenge will likely win out against reformists candidates' promises of negotiation. But even if next month's election results in a more decisively hard-line parliament, Tehran's leaders will still have to reckon with an increasingly angry and desperate electorate that will undoubtedly push back against any policies that risk making their already dire economic situation even worse — regardless of which political camp or faction they come from.

The Big Picture

Next month, Iran will hold its first parliamentary election since U.S. President Donald Trump took office and began moving Washington's Iran policy toward more confrontation. The power of the Iranian parliament is still relatively limited, though its next composition will nonetheless reflect Iranians’ views on their government, the economy and their country's increasingly hostile relationship with the United States. 

The Moderate vs. Hard-line Divide

Iran's political system includes a wide array of political factions that represent an equally wide spectrum of viewpoints shared by the Iranian electorate and their leaders. Tehran's unelected politicians oversee the majority of security and defense policy, whereas economic and social policy lies more in the hands of elected politicians — namely, the president and members of parliament. In order to help grow the economy, Rouhani and his more politically moderate allies in parliament have pushed for a more negotiations-focused approach to the United States and Europe. Iran's more hard-line politicians, meanwhile — who also include the unelected members of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and the IRGC — tend to push for a more confrontational stance against the West and other outside threats. 

In recent years, Iran's hard-liners have continued to struggle to connect with Iran's youth and lack effective answers to the country's long-term economic questions. Cognizant of their limited experience and success with younger voters, Iran's political hard-liners have been working hard to groom their next generation of parliamentary candidates. But whether they'll be able to provide politicians who can adequately address young Iranians' anxieties about their future remains far from certain. 

Moderate candidates, by contrast, have had an easier time connecting with younger voters by focusing on preserving Iran's economy through a balance of prioritizing resistance and isolation, while still staying connected to the global system. Ahead of the election, Rouhani and his political allies have highlighted their economic successes in the midst of U.S. sanctions pressure, such as managing inflation and keeping non-oil gross domestic product high, while still acknowledging their failure to address Iran's many other financial woes, such as high unemployment. 

In addition to younger voters, this economy-focused message has kept more business-minded Iranians under the moderates' wing as well. In October 2019, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) warned that it would impose financial countermeasures in February if it found Iran that was in violation of FATF standards on terrorist financing at the organization's next plenary meeting. By further isolating Iran from the global economy, such an outcome would take an even bigger toll on Iranian companies already struggling under the crushing weight of U.S. sanctions. To avoid this threat, more business-friendly legislators allied with Rouhani's camp have fought hard to pass bills that would make Iran's legal system more adherent to the FATF. And knowing that a more hard-line parliament would be less likely to carry that torch, Iran's more financially-focused voters will likely still support moderate candidates in the upcoming election.

Clearing the Path for Confrontational Policies

But the escalation between the U.S. and Iran earlier this month has since significantly weakened moderates' overall electoral prospects by further discrediting their more balanced approach to Washington's relentless pressure campaign. Rouhani's landslide victory in the 2017 presidential elections gave him a firm mandate for a second term, indicating that high voter turnout can benefit Rouhani and the moderate camp he represents. But that was before the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and started steadily ratcheting up sanctions pressure, which has since taken a significant toll on Iran's economy. 

The swell of nationalism following Soleimani's assassination, meanwhile, has fed right into hard-line candidates' more aggressive rhetoric of revenge and retaliation against the United States. Soleimani's portrayal as a martyr, in particular, has substantially strengthened hard-liners' electoral position by limiting political leaders' ability to criticize the commander and the IRGC. Soleimani was a divisive figure, but Iran's political elite and much of the population have since come together and rallied in support of both the government and late commander. Indeed, shortly after Soleimani's death in early January, Iran's politically fractured parliament unanimously agreed to designate all U.S. forces as "terrorists." Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also stressed national unity when he delivered Iran's Friday prayer sermon on Jan. 17 — a rare occurrence that occurs only when Iran is in a true moment of crisis. 

While Soleimani's assassination has fueled a renewed sense of national unity among Iranians, it’s also highlighted their government's failure to protect Iran's economy and physical security from U.S. threats.

Preelection procedures have further helped clear the way for hard-line parliamentary gains as well. On Jan. 12, the Guardian Council rejected the candidacy of 92 of the 290 sitting members of parliament, mostly due to alleged financial reasons including embezzlement and corruption. The rejected candidates were roughly 50 percent conservatives and 50 percent moderates. This substantial amount of disqualifications means the next parliament will comprise many new faces, which will benefit the hard-line factions — especially given that many of the parliament's most prominent hard-liners were ousted in the 2016 elections that saw more moderates win.

Iranians' Indiscriminate Wrath

But while Soleimani's assassination has fueled a renewed sense of unity among Iranians, it's also highlighted their political leaders' continued failure to keep Iran's economy — and physical security — out of harm's way. Indeed, the uptick in nationalism has not negated the still very real and visceral anger Iranians harbor toward their government. And this brewing anti-government sentiment will make protests around the election all but certain, which could tarnish hard-liners' fresh boost in popularity. 

Should the unrest devolve into violent crackdowns ahead of the election, the blame would predominantly fall on Iran's hard-line leaders due to their more direct control over the country's aggressive domestic security policy, which focuses on maintaining peace and stability even at a high social cost. Many Iranians criticized the federal government, whose unelected positions lean more hard-line, for its large role in the bloody clash between anti-government demonstrators and security forces that broke out in November 2019 and resulted in the deaths of at least 300 people. At the time, Iran increased the deployment of armed forces and anti-riot police to keep the peace, and cut off the Internet for a record number of days as well — demonstrating just how far they're willing to go in order to maintain order. Another high-profile crackdown ahead of the election could thus detract from hard-liners' gains in the upcoming election. 

Looking Ahead

But as things currently stand, the spike in national unity in the face of renewed U.S. threats is still more likely to give the upper hand to hard-line candidates in the upcoming election, meaning more hard-line policies out of Tehran can be expected through at least the rest of the year. A more decisively hard-line parliament would increase scrutiny on the policies and stance of Rouhani and his allies, while reducing scrutiny on the IRGC's domestic and foreign actions. 

The government's economic policies, however, are still unlikely to drastically shift as Tehran waits for the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. But in the meantime, an electoral mandate for a more hard-line approach will grant Iran's leaders more leeway in managing the social fallout of the country's economic strain, as Iran tries to weather the U.S. sanctions storm long enough to outlast the Trump administration. 

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