Bullets and Ballots: Iraq Protests and Iran Parliamentary Elections

Well, hello there! Happy New Year! Once again, I must apologize for an extended hiatus from blogging. I’ve had a busy end to the year, which, in addition to my everyday obligations, included a trip to the UK to present my research at Oxford, the beginnings of preparations for a course I’ll be teaching, and, most recently, hip surgery! It’s left little room for anything else.

But let’s set all that aside and get back to business: Over in the Middle East, a tit-for-tat conflict has once again broken out between Iran and the United States in Iraq. It began with a rocket attack by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, Kataib Hezbollah, that killed an American contractor working on an Iraqi army base. The United States then responded with a comprehensive airstrike against militia targets that killed 25 fighters and wounded dozens more. Donald Trump, in a characteristically bombastic early-morning tweetstorm on New Year’s Eve, blamed Iran for the initial attack and threatened — not warned — them that any further attacks would result in even harsher American retaliation.

Naturally, the media began speculating wildly over the possibility of conflict escalation between Iran and the United States. Pundits, in typical horse-race style commentary (it’s not just for political campaigns!), pondered whether Donald Trump’s “strategy” was advancing American interests in the region.

This is, at its core, a silly debate. Iraq is not a competition. It never was.

In fairness, most Iran-specialists who weighed in on the matter were able to state the obvious here: Iran is in Iraq, and there is little the United States can do about it.

The issue is less a deficit of arms than it is one of knowledge. Iran’s proximity to its neighbor, not to mention its shared Shia sectarian majority, should make plain the futility of trying to compete with the Iranians for supremacy using only the 5,000-odd remaining American soldiers stationed there. Likewise, stuffing the embassy with a couple hundred more will do little to change the balance of power. In that regard, what happened this past week was a perfect encapsulation of this power disparity. After all the United States has invested in the country, including three-quarters of a billion dollars in its supposedly impenetrable embassy complex, all it took was a rush of protestors to breach the gates and wreak havoc for a few days.

As I’ve written in the past, these periodic conflagrations are more distractions of the moment than they are preludes to more dangerous military conflict. Neither side wants a full-scale war here, least of all Trump, who prefers the veneer of militarism — the parades, the accolades, the arms — to the real thing. Likewise, the Iranians already enjoy the strategic and tactical advantage, so there’s little incentive to escalate the conflict beyond small-scale attacks by proxy.  Far simpler for both to posture a bit, exchange some threats, and return to their staring contest until the next incident.

With that out of the way, let’s turn our attention to other political developments inside of Iran. Iran has another election coming up in a few weeks, this time for the Iranian parliament, or Majles, as it’s known in Persian. 

Last month, open registration for the elections saw nearly 14,000 prospective candidates submit their names for election to the eleventh Majles. Registration alone is not a guarantee of candidacy, as all candidates must first receive approval from the Guardian Council before they can appear on the ballot. The Guardian Council consists of twelve members: half clerics directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, half lawyers nominated by the head of the judiciary and confirmed by the Majles. The deep conservatism of both the Supreme Leader and the Iranian Judiciary all but guarantees that the Guardian Council will inherit a similar bias.

The Guardian Council is nominally responsible for vetting the candidates’ Islamic credentials, but the standards are suitably vague so as to allow disqualification for almost any reason. In the past, the Council has sometimes used its authority to limit the number of reformist candidates standing for office. It has also occasionally disqualified the candidacies of dissidents or those who have been critical of the Islamic Republic system, such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The last election, held in early 2016, took place amidst a season of unprecedented optimism in the Islamic Republic. The much-celebrated nuclear deal had recently gone into effect, and hope for the future was high. Reformists capitalized on this overall sentiment and swept to victory under the banner of the so-called List of Hope, winning a plurality of 121 out of 290 seats and eliminating many of the staunchest hard-liners in the process. This was a significant achievement, especially considering that the Guardian Council had previously disqualified a number of the reformists’ preferred candidates. At the very least, the results indicated a high degree of satisfaction with the overall direction of the country at the time.

Reformists are unlikely to experience similar success this time around. Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor at the University of Tehran and frequent political commentator, issued a prediction last year (Persian) that the reformists would fare poorly in this election, suggesting that lower enthusiasm among the population would lead to lower turnout. Certainly, the positive energy that permeated the country in 2016 has faded in the face of biting U.S.-imposed sanctions and a crippled economy. While Trump is undoubtedly the primary foreign villain in Iran, many Iranians blame President Rouhani for his naivete in believing that the promises that the United States made in signing on to the deal under Obama were made in good faith. This sentiment will likely lead to voters either actively rejecting pro-engagement politics or sitting out this election entirely.

Of course, it won’t be possible to thoroughly analyze the potential outcomes until we see the list of approved candidates from the Guardian Council. This list typically comes out about a week or two before elections day. Mercifully, the “campaign season” for Majles elections is only a single week, so Iranians won’t have to endure the endless slog Americans must sit through every two years.

[Update 1/2/20 8:38 PM]: Of course, as soon as I hit publish on this, I see that Iraqi state television is reporting that Qasem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, has been killed. Apparently, it’s not yet clear who carried out the strike. Still, it seems unlikely that the United States wouldn’t have at least a hand in assassinating Iran’s arguably most important and famed military figures. Even if his death was the result of happenstance, Iran is going to blame the United States due to the chaos of last week’s events. This action far surpasses any of the other conflicts to date, including the downed drone and tanker wars earlier this year. I’ll have to take back what I said about the situation not escalating. I don’t see any way Iran doesn’t respond now and with force. This is a dangerous moment.

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