Analysis on Iranian Politics in the New Year

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a discussion on March 18, 2024 on the results of Iran’s elections for the 290-seat Parliament and the 88-member Assembly of Experts, the clerical body charged with selecting and overseeing the supreme leader. Hardliners consolidated their control over both bodies. The panel included:

  • Behnam Ben Taleblu, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  • Holly Dagres, Senior Fellow, Middle East Program, Atlantic Council
  • Naysan Rafati, Senior Analyst, Crisis Group

The following are key remarks by the experts arranged by topic.


2024 Election Results

Dagres: “What we saw on March 1st was the lowest turnout [41 percent] in the Islamic Republic’s 45-year history. So why is that? Yes, it's a mix of hardliners leading the scene, but it’s also that Iranians are fed up with the status quo.”

“I would attribute a lot of the low turnout to this disenchantment with the clerical establishment but on several fronts, in part because of systemic corruption, mismanagement and a rise in repression. And I think that the outcome really highlights how illegitimate the clerical establishment has been in the eyes of the people. When you look at some of the other things that were happening alongside the election, there was a hashtag, RaybeRay. And it basically translates as ‘no way I'll vote.’ Yes, there were some former members of the disbanded diaspora opposition coalition, known as the Georgetown Eight, that we're leading some of this, but we were also seeing folks like imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Narges Mohammadi calling for a boycott. We saw some of the other former political, I would say candidates, that were reformist, that were in prison, that we're also calling for this. And surprisingly, former reformist President Mohammed Khatami actually did not vote in this election. That was actually a first, and it surprised a lot of people. But I think it just shows how bankrupt this trend has been for the clerical establishment.”


Rafati: “Iranian elections by and large are not free and not fair. That is not to say they are not competitive or occasionally kept capable of throwing out a curveball.”

“We rightly put emphasis on what's missing from this picture, which is any element of competitiveness, any element of political variation, even within the spectrum. What the system is looking at, yes, they would love to have 60 percent turnout. Yes, they would like to have 70 percent turnout. The obvious answer is increased competitiveness, increased competitive results and greater interest, greater interest leads to greater participation. That's a fairly straightforward formula. They chose not to do that. They didn't do that under Raisi's election [in 2021]. They didn't do this now. So that tells you that the emphasis right now is on holding that 40 percent who did turnout.

“And again, that [turnout] figure fails to flatter and still deceives. First, it's an official figure. Second, it's not inclusive of the ballots that were discontinued. But thirdly, we've always seen turnout in rural areas. The provinces fare much better than the political centers, the main cities. In the main cities, the voter turnout tends to be more of a political barometer. In the provinces and in the rural areas, it tends to be more a question of can we get an MP (member of Parliament) who can deliver for our needs? And that's why you usually see rates going up as high as 55-60 percent in some of the periphery areas.

“So, with all of that being said, the core of what the establishment now relies on is 20- 25 percent. Pick your number. But it's catering not to getting that 70 percent out [to vote], but to circle the wagons around that core constituency.”

Taleblu: “Those trendlines [of low turnout] tell the story of society, not just elite contraction, but social dispossession, social apathy. And these really built off of a whole series of boom and bust protests in Iran from 2017 to 2020, and then continued into 2021, twice in 2022, once in May and once beginning again in September with the massive protests.”


Protests and Discontent

Dagres: “It’s inevitable that these protests will continue in some shape or form. Yes, there's like a sense of hopelessness on the ground you're seeing this flight of Iranians that are trying to leave the country now because they feel that the situation has become so dire and hopeless that the only choice they have is to leave. Brain drain, of course, has historically been a problem in the country. But I don't think the fight against the regime is over. I talk a lot about Gen Z in my work "Gen daya hast di ayad,” the 80s generation [the 1380s of the Iranian calendar] in Iran since they don't have actually a word for it in Persian. I really put my faith in this generation of Iranians being able to move the needle in the country in a way that their parents and their grandparents haven't.

“Domestically, it's not just that people are discontented with mismanagement and corruption and repression. The state of the economy is in a dire place. The environment, climate change, is a big issue. I wouldn't be surprised if you see mass movements of Iranians from places like Sistan and Baluchistan [province], something that Iranian analysts within the country are worried about and predicting. And so until they deal with these big issues domestically, I think that the regime is going to be more paranoid than it already is.”


Narrowing of the Political Space 

Dagres: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, age 84, “has been talking about this Islamic Revolution 2.0, basically his vision for an Islamic Republic postmortem. And he's been thinking about this for years now. He, in essence, wants to see a hardline dominated, relatively pious, relatively young government in power, and so we've seen it in all three branches of government: the presidency, the legislature and the judiciary.”

Taleblu: “Folks have stopped doing the Kremlinology of the Islamic Republic as the political elite contracted. We've seen, for example, people that were the ultimate insiders... that pool has continually contracted just as the boundaries of acceptable political space in Iran have contracted.”

“That contraction, that preference for 'loyalty and zeal.' Someone from Iran, who was familiar with the university system there, told me of this phrase that was used in the 1980s during the cultural revolution, when they were purging older professors and trying to establish a new generation of academic elites... the line was 'tak va na tamana.' So, it's your righteousness, not your competence that matters. And I think nothing may better define how Khamenei is moving these musical chairs than who is the most righteous? It's not who is most competent. It's not the managerial class. It's not the conservative pragmatists that had given cover to things like the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). It is this righteousness. It is who is most loyal.”

“There is an analogy Khanemei is fond of saying, it's the "Qatar e Enghelab," the train of the revolution. And this train has many cars. And as the train is speeding or approaching towards its destination, these cars are cut. I can't help but think about these different movements over the period of time. In the 1990s, in the first round of the Khatami election for president, Tehran University students used to say, "We write Khatami, they read Ali Akbar Nategh-Nuri." Clearly, that didn't happen. Clearly, the Khatami election was a shock. 

“But then the system began to insulate itself against these shocks. In 2004, hardline consolidation, 2005, bringing forth of Ahmadinejad, albeit under a second round, the pressure against even people who contested that, like [Mehdi] Karroubi. It wasn't the first time people in Iran claimed there was a stolen election. But all of these had an expiration date. Khatami seems to have had an expiration date. Rouhani seems to have had an expiration date. And the regime seems to be, in my view, content with that limited number of trains on the car because it's actually allowing you to approach its destination even further. Khamenei is 84, 85, thinking about succession. These things slow down his train. And if he's talking in the world of zeal or righteousness, not competence, he doesn't want anyone with an independent power base. He doesn't want anyone who will even feign some kind of flirtation with the West.”

Rafati: “It’s the purification of revolutionary thought that the supreme leader has eluded to the last couple of years. Senior IRGC guys have mentioned it. And you hear about it as well when you speak to people who are based in Tehran. Over the past few years, we talk about Parliament, we talk about the presidency, we talk about the institutions, but even in civil service bureaucracy levels of bringing in people who in the past would have been of a more technocratic mold now being kind of true believers – not appointed necessarily based on qualifications, but on beliefs and rewards and patronage.”

“Hassan Rouhani was not allowed to run for the Assembly of Experts, the 88-man body, clerical body. I mean, we don't need to narrow it any further, but someone like Rouhani could not really be considered anything but loyal opposition within the system. This is a man who is not even Khatami. He is a veteran of the national security establishment. He’s a two-time president. He’s been involved in all of the national decision-making circles over the past 30 odd years. But even that is perceived as too much of a wildcard at this stage.”

“The system (government) believes that it is under siege from multiple vectors – from below, from abroad. It sounds fantastical, but there are people in the system who genuinely believed that the 2022 protests were foreign-instigated plots. They genuinely believe that. Now again, it seems a remarkable notion to think that the U.S., Western allies, Western media, a selection of human rights activists would all come together to concoct this grand plan. But if you believe that, it also takes you to very risky conclusions which is not that actually what is driving the 2017 protests was economic grievances or that the 2018/19 protests, sparked, again, by economic discontent, that became very strongly anti-government or that 2022 was not over social discontent that again quickly manifested as anti-system anger, but rather it’s a foreign plot. ‘We subdued it. We're doing fine.’ And so, it’s this combination of paranoia and overconfidence that you have at the same time. And as part of that, you have this shrinking of the circle to all but the most dogmatic, all but the most ideologically pure, all but the most conservative elements of the system. That includes Raisi, that includes people who’ve been vetted and approved for the Assembly of Experts, that includes members of Parliament, and succession obviously being part of that.”