The past few days have been terrible for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Feb. 21 parliamentary elections were boycotted by a majority of the population, with credible reports that just 19% of the population voted nationwide. The election was more tightly controlled by the regime than ever before, as the “reformist” faction of the regime was prevented from running most of its candidates by the Guardian Council, which chooses who may run in Iranian elections. But the public has also given up on the regime’s electoral charade — Iranians know that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard make all decisions and that Parliament is useless.
The blow to the regime’s legitimacy comes at a particularly bad time for the ruling elite. The economy faces collapse as the Islamic Republic is challenged by internal rebellion and protests against its rule across the Middle East. Moreover, the regime’s negligence and incompetence in handling the coronavirus outbreak in Iran have made the country the second-biggest source of a possible global pandemic. The regime has close to zero legitimacy and credibility among Iranians.
The recent parliamentary elections were a crucial test for the regime’s legitimacy as it has faced nationwide protests and strikes for more than two years, culminating in a major popular uprising in November 2019. The Aban uprising (named after the Iranian month of Aban) shook the regime to its core. Dozens of Iranian cities, including the capital Tehran, witnessed anti-regime uprisings after a threefold increase in fuel prices.
Khamenei responded violently, ordering his security forces to kill and maim thousands of unarmed civilian protesters. He hoped that the parliamentary elections would steady the sinking ship of state as he urged Iranians to vote even if they didn’t “like” him. Instead, Iranians boycotted the elections en masse, as evidenced by videos of empty polling stations across the country and reports of historically low turnout.
The regime has declared voter turnout at 42% percent, but Jamal Orfi, chief of the National Elections Headquarters, has said only 11 million Iranians had voted out of a total of 58 million eligible voters, or 19%. Well-known pro-regime academic and political commentator Sadegh Zibakalam estimates voter turnout to have been 20-30%, contradicting the regime’s narrative. The truth may never be known, as the regime has refused to release detailed information on voting, especially from smaller towns and provinces, fearing it will demonstrate extremely low turnout. But even the regime’s claim of 42% turnout is quite low for a regime that rests its claim to rule on a popular “revolutionary” mandate.
The coronavirus outbreak has further sapped the population’s trust in the Islamic Republic. The regime lied to Iranians for weeks, claiming that Iran had not experienced cases of the coronavirus. The regime feared that a coronavirus-induced panic would suppress voter turnout. And the regime has still not taken proper measures to prevent coronavirus from spreading to Iran from China. Flights between Iran and China on the Revolutionary Guard-controlled Mahan Airlines, which appears to have carried the virus from China to Iran, are still continuing.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Iranians may have been infected by the virus, with many of the victims not even aware of their specific condition. The central city of Qom, Iran’s holiest city and the ruling clergy’s power center, appears to have witnessed the worst outbreak. Qom parliamentarian Ahmad Amirabadi believes as many as 50 residents of Qom have died, a claim strenuously denied by other regime authorities.
Regardless of the true numbers, the regime’s lying and negligence have exploded into popular anger. The northern city of Talesh has experienced anti-regime riots after local hospitals were chosen as quarantine centers, and democratic Iranian opposition activists have urged Iranians to stay home, not just for their safety, but as a boycott against the Islamic Republic. Surrounding countries have closed their borders with Iran, contributing to the possible collapse of an already severely stressed economy.
More riots and protests against the regime are increasingly likely.
The Islamic Republic has very little popular support and resembles a failed state with every coming day. The regime’s fig leaf of popular elections has finally fallen. Iranians know that neither the “reformists” nor “conservatives” can rescue them from their existential crisis. Khamenei and the Guard wield all power, but they are more than ever held responsible for Iran’s drastically declining fortunes.
Khamenei, fearing additional popular unrest, is increasingly relying on the Revolutionary Guard to maintain his authority. His new pick for speaker of Parliament is rumored to be Guard officer Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former mayor of Tehran known for his corruption and loyalty to the system. He is touted by the regime and its Western apologists as a “pragmatist,” but his ascent may be a possible sign of an even more authoritarian regime in the near future.
But not even the Revolutionary Guard is equipped to handle Iran’s economic, social, and political crises. The regime’s fortunes will decline, absent a major change, such as the death or removal of Khamenei from power or new negotiations with the United States.
The future is bleak — not only for the Iranian people but also for their oppressor regime.
Alireza Nader is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.