Two important facts emerged from the Iran elections on 21 February. The first is that the country actually held elections — a rarity in that region. The second is that the outcome was almost wholly negative for the regime. The candidate list had been purged of anyone not loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his uncompromising authoritarian rule. As a result, Iran saw its lowest voter turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with the interior ministry announcing 42% participation, falling to as low as 20% to 25% in the capital Tehran. Turnout in the other big cities, Isfahan and Tabriz, was similarly low.
Holding the elections at all showed that the government has some confidence in the stability of the political system. The poor turnout was a very strong message to the supreme leader that his regime has to change course. Khamenei’s domestic and foreign policy has brought disaster to the country, and he ignores this at his peril. The electorate clearly did not buy the line that all Iran’s current troubles are caused by the United States. The rapid decline in living standards, lack of jobs and rampant inflation is the result of government policy — and the electorate knows it.
Greater Tehran, with a population of 15 million, is barely governable. It takes all the energy of the Revolutionary Guards, the Ministry of Intelligence and the other security services to keep order. Half the inhabitants are under 32, and youth unemployment is officially 27% — although in reality it is nearer 50%, as government statistics label just one hour of work a week as “employment.” Many riots protesting rising food and fuel prices have already taken place.
The World Bank projects a further severe contraction of the economy over the next 12 months and continued high inflation. Iran’s cities, and Tehran in particular, are at boiling point, and the election has rammed that message home unambiguously. Khamenei has lost any remaining legitimacy or popular consent to govern. If he continues like this, all he can do is retain power by fear, repression and all the horrors of a police state. He knows that this is not sustainable, and he will pragmatically change course. The regime is not suicidal.
Iran is truly Oriental in the complexity of its constitution. The strange mixture of theocracy and civil government is bewildering — but it works. The government has survived invasions, wars, sanctions, insurgency and a relentless campaign of covert destabilization since the 1979 revolution. It will weather the current crisis too.
Iran has strategic depth, policy options and political allies. The key to alleviating economic pressure is to get some sanctions relief. Tehran’s best hope is for Donald Trump to lose the 2020 US election. Even if he is reelected, there is another likely option — a mixture of stick and carrot. The stick is to threaten yet more attacks on Saudi Arabia, on shipping in the Gulf and to turn up the heat in Yemen. Iran can also mobilize its forces in Iraq to make continued US presence and operations by US companies untenable. Iran could also destabilize Bahrein and Afghanistan, and use its extensive Hezbollah network to threaten violence elsewhere.
The carrot could be to offer Saudi Arabia a cessation of hostilities and a security dialogue if Saudi Arabia can persuade Trump to ease sanctions. This dialogue could include a mutual limit on ballistic missiles as well as the nuclear issue. Since this is exactly what Trump has said he wants, there is an opening. In fact, as both Tehran and Washington know full well, the build-up of Chinese-sourced ballistic missiles in Saudi Arabia is not in US interests either.
Iran will also reach out to its friends in Europe, Russia and China to press the US to enter into negotiations to establish security in the Gulf. They will all leap at the chance to defuse the current impasse. The Iranian regime will survive — and survival is all that matters.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.