Trump offensive leaves Iran’s hardliners ascendant as poll nears

Bourse and Bazaar | Golnar Motevalli and Arsalan Shahla: After a dozen years as speaker of Iran’s parliament, half of them allied with President Hassan Rouhani as he reached out to the West, Ali Larijani is bowing out.

It’s been a tumultuous reign, book-ended by devastating U.S. sanction regimes. But his decision not to contest February 21 national assembly elections is more than a hard-earned career change. Those who backed Rouhani when Iran negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, including the influential 62-year-old Larijani, stand fatally weakened as the accord crumbles under President Donald Trump’s economic offensive and Tehran’s tit-for-tat reprisals.

The U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign weakened the position of Iran’s reformists, according to one of their number, Jalal Mirzaei.

“Things were going well,” Mirzaei said in Vienna this month as he attended an OPEC meeting. Then “Mr. Trump became president.”

As a result, more than six years after Iranians opted for change under Rouhani, arch-conservatives are ascendant, dominating the field of favored ballot candidates. The consequences for Iran and regional security are substantial.

On the Backfoot

“We’re in a situation where the more reasonable voices calling for a much more open Iran which was pro-diplomacy are fast losing ground to hardliners,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council of Foreign Relations.

The Trump administration sought to weaken Iran, which he blamed for stirring regional strife and exporting extremism, in part by alienating Iranians from their leaders. His administration pointed to last month’s protests and a deadly security crackdown as evidence the sanctions strategy is working.

To further its aims, the U.S. might welcome power consolidated in the hands of ultra-conservatives, said Geranmayeh, if that undermines European resolve to maintain ties with Iran.

But for many observers, the electoral realignment’s more likely to extend the standoff. After all, encouraging Iran to accept greater curbs on its nuclear and missile programs for sanctions to be lifted becomes harder if the result is to sideline the people who might be willing to make the case for concessions.

While Iranian leaders have mostly remained united in opposing negotiations with the U.S. until it removes sanctions, two attempts by French President Emmanuel Macron to kickstart talks showed promise. The second foundered after a September attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, which Washington blamed on Iran, hardened positions.

‘Gravely Damaged’

“By undermining Rouhani’s most important achievement, Trump gravely damaged his presidency and popularity,” said Ali Vaez, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “What has been fatally damaged in the process is not just pro-engagement Iranian politicians, but the whole concept of engagement with the West.”

The 16,145 people registered to contest 290 seats in parliament represent the narrow spectrum of Iranian politics. But the most well-known number among Rouhani’s fiercest critics, supporters of an unflinching interpretation of Iran’s Islamic laws with careers defined by distrust of the U.S. and the wider West.

They include ex-mayor of Tehran and former military officer Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf; Vahid Yaminpour, a TV personality; and legal scholar and cleric Hamid Rasaei.

The most notable reformists standing are Rouhani’s former top legal adviser Shahindokht Molaverdi, and the president’s son-in-law. The current record number of 14 women lawmakers is likely to drop.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on December 2 said the Trump administration’s reliance on sanctions to achieve goals in places like Iran and Venezuela had been “incredibly effective.” Tehran has fewer resources to conduct a regional “terror campaign,” he said.

Collision Course

Yet a lurch to the right in Iran risks emboldening the security services and their proxy forces in war zones such as Yemen and Syria, raising the chances of a confrontation, orchestrated or unplanned, with the U.S. just as its Gulf partners want to deescalate tensions.

And it could overwhelm the government with “monthly and even weekly interrogations of ministers and impeachment efforts,” said Geranmayeh. Targets will include Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, one of Rouhani’s most effective technocrats who has longstanding links to reformers, and whom hardliners in parliament are currently trying to impeach.

The government had lost support before Trump exited the nuclear deal last year, for failing to deliver the jobs and better pay the accord promised. Other Iranians, dismayed over no progress in delivering greater social freedoms, lost patience.

As a U.S. ban on critical oil exports tipped the economy into recession, the government’s popularity dived.

Low Turnout

The slump is expected to reduce turnout in February, boosting hardliners whose supporters traditionally vote under instruction from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mohammadali Abtahi, a reformist cleric jailed during unrest that followed 2009’s disputed presidential election, told Shargh newspaper that “unpopular” conservatives would “emerge as victorious only if turnout is low.”

He’s not the only moderate to speak out. In a statement read by supporters, former President Mohammad Khatami, whose words can’t be reported in Iran due to a ban, told a December 12 Tehran rally that the only alternative to an Islamic Republic that honored its original founding principles was a dictatorship.

Others present called on Ayatollah Khamenei to overhaul an opaque council able to disqualify election candidates with little accountability, as well as to avoid using decrees—such as the one that triggered November’s violence—to bypass parliamentary oversight.

As for Larijani, Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator may be taking a step back to consider a bid for the presidency. But much of that would depend on the fate of the nuclear deal and whether Trump himself wins another term next year.

Seething Unrest

For now, as he nears the end of his tenure, Larijani still has the task of refereeing a majority-moderate parliament that’s using whatever time it has left to amend the gasoline policy.

In Tehran, where an acrid smog hung over commuters, first-time voter Amirali, 20, dismissed the system as corrupt.

“Somebody comes along with the promise of a better future and people fall for their words,” he said, asking not to be identified due to the sensitivity of speaking to foreign media.

The spark for the protests was a surprise decision to hike gasoline prices and introduce rationing. Demonstrations swept through the cities of Tabriz, Isfahan and Mashhad, and then spread to Tehran as the city was cloaked by a sudden snowfall.

Unverified mobile-phone footage showed clashes between protesters and security forces. Authorities imposed an unprecedented internet blackout and it’s still not clear how many people were killed: death tolls range from an initial 12 reported by officials—a number that hasn’t been updated—to an estimate of more than 200 by Amnesty International.

The violence underscored moderates’ perilous position with less than two years left of Rouhani’s second and last term.

“The most important thing that brings people out to vote is hope,” said Zanganeh, in what could turn out to be a grim prophesy. “And the thing that drives them away is hopelessness.”