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World & Nation

Iran’s angry population demands reform. Why that won’t happen in today’s elections

Iran campaign posters
An Iranian woman walks past election posters during the last day of campaigning in Tehran on Feb. 19, 2020.
(Atta Kenare / AFP/Getty Images)

Mostafa Tajzadeh knows well the perilous ways of Iranian politics: He rose to the ranks of deputy minister only to be later thrown in jail as one of the country’s leading reformist voices. He was banned and disparaged, and it is no surprise the he doesn’t expect much to change in Friday’s parliamentary elections.

“Reformists lost even before the election began,” he said.

A mass disqualification of more than 7,000 of the 15,000 candidate applicants makes Iran’s 11th parliamentary elections on Friday one of the least representative in the four decades since the founding of the Islamic Republic. The targets are mainly reformist and moderate candidates, including 90 current lawmakers. The numbers suggest a sweep for conservatives and hard-liners.

The 12-member body of clerics who make up the Guardian Council is dominated by conservatives with extraordinary powers and deep loyalties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. To symbolize solidarity with fellow reformists unable to run for a seat on the 290-member assembly, Tajzadeh and others said they won’t be casting a ballot and are calling on others to do the same.

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Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gives a speech in Tehran on Feb. 18, 2020, about Friday’s parliamentary elections.
(Iranian Supreme Leader’s Press Office )

These are tense political times in Iran. Hard-liners and reformists have been unable to calm growing public anger over U.S.-imposed economic sanctions that have led to high inflation, currency devaluation and soaring gas prices. Deadly protests shook much of the nation in November.

Disillusionment with the Islamic Republic intensified in January after the Revolutionary Guard cover-up of the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian passenger jet when Iranian forces launched missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq in retaliation for an American airstrike that killed Gen. Qassem Suleimani. A second wave of protests erupted as demonstrators, many calling for Khamenei to step down, thronged the streets.

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“I’m not going to vote because it seems like we are not going anywhere through the ballot box,” said Fereshteh Toosi, a 31-year-old political activist in Tehran. “The inefficiency of the current parliament and the government is a good reason to not take part in the election.”

As the dissenting voices grow louder, authorities have responded by tightening their grip. The intelligence arm of the Revolutionary Guard raided the homes of several journalists in the lead-up to Friday’s elections. Thousands of people remain detained after the protests in November and January.

Iranian elections
Election posters in Tehran on Feb. 20, 2020, the eve of Iranian parliamentary elections.
(Atta Kenare / AFP/Getty Images)

The goal of reformists, said Tajzadeh, is to change the constitution to limit the supreme leader’s power and time in office. Khamenei was named supreme leader in 1989. But Iran’s theocracy makes it so that — despite having President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, in office — reformists are prevented from wielding enough influence to make any meaningful changes to the country’s political setup.

Unable to bring about the social and political reforms the government has promised, reformists and moderates have proved what many wary Iranians have long known: that working within the confines of the Islamic Republic’s system is futile.

After the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei introduced velayat-e-faqih (guardianship of Islamic jurists), which is Iran’s system of governance under Shiite Islam that gives vast authority to the supreme leader and his clerical guardians. To safeguard the theocracy, an amendment was made to the constitution after Khomenei’s death that expanded the velayat-e-faqih and ensured the supreme leader wields absolute power.

“People are not satisfied with the system, but they do not ask for a revolution or turbulence,” Tajzadeh said. “They call for a change, they believe that this situation does not serve them.”

The reformists may have been largely sidelined, but stiff competition does exist among hard-liner and conservative camps. Both factions support Iran’s Islamic revolutionary ideals, but conservatives tend to be more comfortable engaging with the international community, unlike hard-liners, whose base consists mostly of clerics and Revolutionary Guard members.

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Minimal progress has been made in uniting hard-liners and conservatives, with each accusing the other of corruption. The stakes are high for both groups because the new parliament will help shape the country’s political landscape before and after Iran’s presidential election in 2021.

For decades, the Guardian Council — tasked with interpreting the Iranian Constitution and political vetting — has selected a narrow pool of candidates to run for office. They include men such as Elias Naderan, a three-time conservative lawmaker, who lives in an affluent neighborhood in north Tehran.

He acknowledged how some Iranians have become disenchanted with going to the ballot box in the aftermath of the killings of hundreds of protesters during the unrest in November over the 50% hike in gas prices. “The November protests made a dent in the public’s confidence in the establishment, but it is still possible to rebuild it,” Naderan said. “It will worsen if nothing is done ... no parties can solve the country’s problems alone. We need national unity.”

Iran vote
A woman walks past a mural depicting the Iranian national flag in Tehran on Feb. 20, 2020, the eve of parliamentary elections.
(Atta Kenare / AFP/Getty Images)

A 2019 survey by the Iranian Students Polling Agency found that only 15% of people in Tehran were satisfied with the country’s leaders. It also reported that 54% of the country’s 80 million people believe conditions in Iran are growing worse. That moderate and reformists were disqualified from running suggests that Iran’s conservatives were afraid that they were about to lose, Tajzadeh said from his apartment complex in northeast Tehran.

Miles away, near one of the oldest concrete bridges in Tehran, a defaced banner of conservative candidate Reza Taghipour towered over the streets. On a busy boulevard nearby, a public debate about the elections was taking place. But only three people stopped to listen. Aside from that, the streets were mostly empty of campaign posters.

“People are disappointed and hopeless about the future. Even my mother asks me what the future of the Islamic Republic is,” Tajzadeh said.

A special correspondent in Tehran contributed to this report.


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