Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
Ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979 was monopolised by Islamists, Iranians’ democratic aspirations have been crushed under theocratic dogma. The Islamists didn’t have it all their own way, however. Though they managed to install Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader, they were forced to tolerate an elected parliament and presidency.
Sometimes, the regime saw fit to allow loyal dissent, as when Muhammad Khatami held office between 1997 to 2005, as did Hassan Rouhani, who won in 2013 and 2017 – balancing the legitimacy gained by allowing a broad field of candidates to run, with the risk of an unacceptably liberal candidate winning.
Despite the efforts of the Guardian Council, which has the power to “cancel” unsuitable contenders, candidates unsuitable to regime hardliners have been elected with alarming frequency. With the exception of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term in 2005, majorities of Iranians have endorsed the most “reformist” candidate allowed to take part at every election in the last 24 years.
In 2009, public support for Mir Hossein Moussavi was so high that the election had to be rigged in Ahmadinejad’s favour, sparking off a huge popular protests. The uprising, known as the “Green Revolution” was put down with savage repression, which the Obama administration observed closely while standing idly by.
The Administration focused instead on negotiations over Iran’s illicit nuclear programme, which expanded, under Rouhani’s presidency, into an attempt to give the reformists practical economic benefits in exchange for strategic détente and the postponing of nuclear enrichment.
To the long list of the baleful consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency must be added the collapse of the agreement negotiated by Obama, Britain, France, and Germany (with Chinese and semi-sincere Russian endorsement), known as the JCPOA.
The Biden Administration is trying to revive it, and extend it to cover limitations on missiles and the operation of regional militias, which Iran supports in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. But it faces a new obstacle in the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi.
Raisi was handed his election by the simple expedient of disqualifying all serious opposition candidates, including Khomeini’s suprisingly reform-minded grandson Hassan, who withdrew under presssure. Raisi won, of course – but turnout slumped by 25 points to just over 48 per cent, denying him popular legitimacy.
Some Iran-watchers, such as Karim Sajadpur think the regime has something else in store for Raisi, who is already being promoted to “Ayatollah” on state TV (in fact, he holds the lesser rank of Hojetalislam). The current Supreme Leader, Khamenei, is 82 and even if rumours of his illness from prostate cancer are exaggerated, he won’t be around for long.
Raisi, who presided over the execution of 5000 regime opponents, including women and children, in 1988, and is personally under US sanctions as a result, would be a strong bulwark against an Iranian version of Gorbachev taking over.
The chances of him winning a fair election were obviously slim. In addition to the longstanding pro-reformist tilt in public opinion, there was an extended, nation-wide working class revolt in 2019 that was put down with ferocious violence, before it petered out because of Covid. The pandemic, too, has been devastating for Iran, which had one of the earliest and most severe first waves and continues to struggle with the disease.
But allowing the people let off steam came second to burnishing Raisi’s credentials this time. The reformist movement has now been sidelined, and excluded from even the hope of power. The Revolutionary Guards’ control over foreign policy and the economy has been bolstered. Expect military adventurism in Yemen and though Hezbollah to continue. The next few years will be a headache for the West and a nightmare for Iranians.
The regime of 1979 is entering its late, ossified stage. It has lost internal drive, except for meteing brutality out to its opponents, and the self-enrichment of its military-industrial elite. It will become brittle as the dwingling number of genuine supporters ages, and is insulated by its power from the fate of their compatriots.
Late dicatorship, when everyone knows the regime is based on lies, but stays outwardly loyal out of fear or greed, can however last quite some time – as observers of Mubarak’s Egypt or Lukashenko’s Belarus can attest. Unlike there, the Iranian regime appears capable of institutionalising itself. Unlike Franco or Trujillo, or indeed the Shah, there is no single patriarch to be dethroned. The autumn of Iran’s patriarchy looks like it could be a very long one indeed.