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Iran’s elections likely to make things worse for the region

Iran’s hardliners are expected to consolidate their grip on power through engineering parliamentary elections set for Feb. 21.  With most moderates barred from running, the elections will offer little real choice for the Iranian people, but are likely to make matters worse in the region.

The pool of candidates allowed to run for office is predetermined by the Guardian Council, controlled by conservatives and headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to official figures, the council rejected 7,296 candidates and permitted only 7,148 to run. Causes for rejection were not made clear, as the council relies on some Byzantine rules to weed out unfriendly candidates. But, according to Iran experts, those rejected were mostly reformists. They also point out that the high rejection ratio, over 50 percent, is unusually high.

What is at stake at these elections is charting the future for Iran internally and abroad. The hardliners are hoping to take advantage of the siege mentality they have built, especially after the killing on Jan. 3 of Qassem Soleimani of the Quds Force, by portraying Iran as the victim of an America bent on their destruction. America is blamed for Iran’s worsening economic conditions and for the widespread protests demanding reform. The downing of the Ukrainian airliner, which killed 176 civilians, is also blamed on America in some twisted narrative that is circulating during the election campaign.    

The level of threats coming out of Iran these days is alarming, but it is likely to get even worse after the election later this week of a new crop of extremists, who will likely rubberstamp what the conservative leadership decides. There is little doubt that Iran’s regional proxies are in trouble with their own constituencies, but that fact will only harden Iran’s extremists’ resolve to keep them in power. In Iraq, following Soleimani’s death, each major Iranian-backed militia has secured a position from which it tries to dictate the future of the country, whether by trying to suppress peaceful protests of Iraqi youth, or lobbing missiles at US forces and diplomats to try to force them out. With the new elections, we may see an increase in these attempts.

In Yemen, the last two months have witnessed a dangerous escalation by the Houthi militias, another proxy of Tehran. Not only have they reneged on the commitments they made in Sweden in Dec. 2018 and failed to evacuate Hodeidah, the crux of the Stockholm Agreement, but they have launched major attacks against previously quiet fronts, in Marib, Al-Jawf, Al-Dhaleh and elsewhere.

In Lebanon, Iran’s proxies and allies have turned the country into a clerically dominated vassal. This situation is especially ironic, because Lebanon is the most religiously diverse country in the region, with about 15 sects supposedly dividing power amongst themselves. The government and parliament have been incapable of providing the most basic of government services. The physical, financial and administrative infrastructures of Lebanon are crumbling and the country is teetering toward bankruptcy and economic meltdown.  This turn of events is another irony: Lebanese professionals are famous for contributing significantly to the wellbeing of other countries. The Gulf, South America and Australia, inter alia, owe a lot of gratitude to Lebanese engineers, physicians, and business experts. However, within Lebanon, the power grab by Hezbollah and its allies have effectively excluded those same professionals from helping their own country. One of Soleimani’s last actions was a meeting with Hezbollah’s leaders, where he reportedly dispatched instructions on how to deal with the political crisis in Lebanon; he micromanaged Lebanon as he did Syria and Iraq’s affairs.

Having secured the results of the Friday elections, the hardliners must expect that the new crop of Iran’s parliamentarians would return the favor and push an even more bellicose regional policy. They see Syria as a success and the model to follow in other countries where Iran is currently involved. Iran has made clear that it is willing to push things further in other parts of the region to reach an outcome.

The hardliners are on to something. In a way, the future of Iran’s meddling in the region is already here, in Syria. Iran and its allies have fought ruthlessly to maintain Syrian President Bashar Assad in power at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Syrian lives and millions of refugees and internally displaced persons. Utter destruction, as we see it playing out now in Syria, appears to be Iran’s modus operandi. With limited resources, Tehran has resorted to sectarian-based civil war to divide and rule, and prop up proxies that owe their fate to its support.

Rebuilding those countries is not in Iran’s interest. For example, its policy is based on blocking return to civilian rule in Iraq, insisting instead on maintaining militia control of the government, and those militias are also instrumental in suppressing peaceful protests, marginalizing regular security forces  and harassing US and coalition forces. Without foreign troops, the militias will have the run of the country and Iran will monopolize power. The Syrian model demonstrates the devastating extent to which Iran will go to maintain its grip on the country. The same goes for other countries where Iran has chosen to make a foothold.

After the elections, we could see an unhinged Iranian regional policy that will push matters further. Reformists at home and abroad will be put under pressure to go along or make way. These changes in Iran require a careful reassessment of US and European policies toward Iran to respond to the rising power of extremists.