Corruption, not Trump, will drive Iran’s protest vote
By BOBBY GHOSH | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: January 31, 2020
A familiar charade is playing out in Tehran. Ahead of the elections to the Iranian parliament this month, those political factions likely to perform poorly are preemptively blaming the U.S.
Expectation-management is the recourse of last resort for failing politicians everywhere, and blaming the U.S. is the hoariest political tradition in the Islamic Republic. The most practiced exponents of both skills are the so-called “moderates,” whose standard-bearer is President Hassan Rouhani.
A brief detour on definitions: Rouhani is not really a moderate in any rational understanding of the term. He has always been part of the security-clerical complex that has run Iran since the 1989 death of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He and his coterie are best characterized as the least hardline of the hardliners.
The Iranian political system allows little room for genuine moderates, less still for reformers. The last time that a government came anywhere close to those definitions — the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami — it was unable to make any meaningful reforms stick.
Back to the current election cycle. Rouhani and his fellow least-hardliners are expected to lose ground, and are blaming the Trump administration. The perfidious Americans, Rouhani says, are seeking to “create gaps between the establishment and people,” and Iranians should use the ballot box to demonstrate their unity.
But there are many reasons for Rouhani’s faction to fare poorly. Some are purely cyclical: Iranian voters have tended to throw the bums out every eight years. Khatami and his wannabe-reformers were followed by the reactionaries of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in 2005, who were in turn replaced by Rouhani and his faction in 2013.
Ensuring that the cycle keeps turning smoothly is the man with the real power in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the hardest of hardliners. When there is any sign of a wobble, he intervenes in one of two ways. Before an election, he weakens the prospects of any inconvenient faction by making sure the Guardian Council, which he controls, disqualifies a disproportionate proportion of its candidates. The Council has been true to form in this cycle, but it has had an assist from Rouhani’s administration, which has also disqualified candidates.
If putting his finger on the scale before an election proves insufficient, Khamenei has been willing to put the fix in, as he did in 2009 when Ahmedinejad seemed at risk of missing out on a second term. When Iranians took to the street to protest against this tampering, he ordered a bloody crackdown. The candidates who stood against Ahmedinejad were put under house arrest, and it has suited Rouhani to leave them there.
Khamenei will likely not need a post-hoc fix this time. Rouhani and his faction excite little public enthusiasm, and many Iranians will likely sit this one out — a prospect that alarms both men, since it will inevitably be interpreted as a repudiation of the political system they have nurtured for decades.
Rouhani’s rivals wouldn’t dream of copying an American election slogan, but their message has echoes of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign catchphrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” They know that Iranians are hurting from a severe economic contraction, and are hammering the president for failing to deliver the prosperity he promised in previous election campaigns.
The president’s faction has tried to blame the economic malaise on President Donald Trump’s abrogation of the nuclear deal and the subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Rouhani has himself claimed that American sanctions have cost the Iranian economy $200 billion in investment and foreign-exchange income.
But while Iranians are obviously no fans of Trump, and they know the sanctions hurt, they are not buying Rouhani’s excuses. In repeated spasms of anti-government protests, they have tended to focus on the venality of the regime in Tehran, and not the hostility of the government in Washington. Rather than address such grievances, the regime has responded with brute force, killing hundreds.
If the protests are any guide, the public mantra for the election will be, “It’s the corruption, stupid.” Despite the Rouhani government’s cosmetic crackdowns, the country has continued to slide in Transparency International’s Corruption Index, from 130th of 180 countries in 2017, to 138th in 2018 and 146th in 2019.
The venality is widespread: Rouhani’s brother was arrested for graft in 2017, only to be released a day later, prompting accusations of favoritism. (He was formally sentenced last fall.) Khamenei oversees a business network worth tens of billions of dollars, and his favorites among the hardliners, such as the powerful Larijani brothers, are obvious beneficiaries of nepotism, and possibly graft.
If voters ignore Rouhani’s pleas for a big turnout on Feb. 21, he will have only himself to blame. But there’s a good chance he will try to pin that, too, on the U.S.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.