Iran’s parliamentary elections on March 14 saw the most belligerent and suppressive faction in the ruling establishment retain its significant majority. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s unelected Supreme Leader, was quick to paint the results as an act of popular support for the regime and opposition to the West, particularly the United States. Notwithstanding Khamenei’s post-election bluster, the election was neither “free nor fair”; rather, it was a vivid display of the regime’s illegitimacy and Khamenei’s determination to solidify the politico-military faction embodied by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cohorts.
Iran’s regime has a penchant for inflating electoral statistics, and this round was no exception. The Interior Ministry’s claim of a 60 percent voter turnout more reflected its reaction to a widespread boycott than the actual vote on Friday. There was but a trickle of voters in Tehran. According to the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent, polling stations across the capital were “quiet, orderly and only sparsely attended,” as millions of Iranians chose to ignore the plea by Khamenei that voting was a "national and religious duty".
Ridiculing the government’s 60 percent figure, the BBC reported that “There was certainly no evidence of such a high turn-out in Tehran where polling stations were not busy and many people said they felt there was nothing, or no one, to vote for.” Even the official figure for turnout in Tehran — nearly 2 million out of 7 million eligible voters — shows only a 28% participation. Meanwhile, simple addition of the votes gained by each candidate indicates that after all the rigging, less than 15% of voters took part.
Many Iranians used the opportunity to criticize the regime, noting that the elections were largely a sham, as a quotation in the UK paper the Guardian demonstrated: "The people you see voting here are people employed by the government, and who depend on the government. Ordinary people do not have a good life and they don’t vote. Of my family and friends, not 1% are going to vote. All the people on the list are the same. It’s all the same regime.”
Prior to the election, the Guardian Council, the powerful clerical vetting body, disqualified nearly 3,000 candidates from the rival factions, primarily comprised of cohorts of former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. The Council disqualified most major figures, and even many incumbents. But make no mistake: the objective was not a complete purge; it sought to keep enough of them on the ballot to give the election a veneer of inclusiveness, while ruling out the possibility of a strong rival block emerging.
The scheme, known as “electoral engineering” within the inner ranks of the regime, also sought to discredit the rival factions, by letting them in and then dealing them a severe electoral blow. The ploy worked: the so called “reformist” faction fell for it. Trying to take the moral high ground to hide their reversal of fortunes, one senior official told a reporter, “The very presence of the reformers in the election campaign is a victory for them… So, even five or six reformers in the 8th parliament can be good enough for the reformist struggle toward a further open society.”
Far from providing a mandate for the clerical regime, Friday’s elections demonstrated its determination to silence even the nominal dissent coming from the hapless “reformist” camp. All the pre-election maneuvering points to the fact that the Friday election was an opportunity for Khamenei and his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to consolidate the politico-military faction represented by the IRGC’s top brass and veteran commanders turned politicians, like Ahmadinejad. In recent years, Khamenei has thrown his lot and that of his regime behind the IRGC, at the expense of his traditional ideological and political base. He made it clear on Friday that there would be no return to the “reformist vs. hard-liners” scenario. He and his allies undercut the “reformist” faction in 2003, politically decapitated them during the 2005 presidential elections, and buried their remains on Friday.
Afterwards, the top leadership lost no time trumpeting its illegitimate policies. On Sunday, even before the ballot count was complete, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad declared the vote an affirmation of Iran’s “inalienable right” to nuclear power. The government also shut down nine popular magazines.
But the Friday elections had exposed the reality that just beneath the veneer of Tehran’s claims of popular support for its rogue regional and nuclear ambitions lays a regime despised by its people, who desperately seek real democratic change. This reality indeed makes the IRGC-centric regime of the ayatollahs vulnerable, and leaves it little room to maneuver.
Tehran’s path of confrontation was chosen long ago, and Khamenei must stay the course in the interest of self-preservation. Tehran will continue secretly developing a nuclear bomb (while obfuscating the nuclear issue), will keep training and arming Iraqi militants (while declaring it wants peace in Iraq), and will not relent on the domestic repression (while claiming a popular mandate). The sooner the West recognizes that Tehran has exhausted its capacity to change its rogue behavior, the better it will be able to fix its broken policy and take concrete steps to implement a new approach.
The right policy would maintain international pressure and sanctions on the Iranian regime, while recognizing that the discontent on display last Friday is just tip of the iceberg. There is deep, widespread popular hostility to the ayatollahs’ regime. The Iranian people and their opposition are the best allies for a peaceful and democratic Iran. They are the ones the West should enthusiastically and urgently engage, not the terrorist tyrants who rule over them.