The Iranian regime’s parliament appointed its new speaker on Thursday, and it proved to be a latest in a series of move of the regime’s policy of contraction over the government. There were three candidates for the position by the time lawmakers cast their votes, but the outcome was effectively predetermined. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf received 230 of the 267 votes.
The landslide victory stems from a couple of factors. Firstly, Ghalibaf was reportedly the candidate favored by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Secondly, the impulse to support Khamenei should be stronger in the current parliament than it has been in many years. This is because the elections that determined the makeup of that parliament were rigged to guarantee Khamenei’s absolute dominance, in his contraction policy and making the regime unipolar.
#Iran: Khamenei clearly showed that his regime’s strategic roadmap is a policy of contraction in all aspects, including in dealing with the U.S. The last hope of the regime’s apologists and lovers of negotiation with the U.S. has shattered #Iranian https://t.co/6XOLLo6vWW
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) June 2, 2020
As part of the supreme leader’s ultimate authority, he is tasked with directly appointing half of the 12 members on the Guardian Council, a body that is responsible for vetting all laws and all candidates for national office. Any bill or any person deemed to be incompatible with Khamenei’s will can be summarily barred from going into law or assuming office.
Sometimes, this power is wielded sparingly. In the run-up to the February 21 parliamentary elections, the Guardian Council was extremely heavy-handed. Nearly every candidate of the rival faction was purged from the ballot, including some who had served in the previous parliament and were seeking reelection.
This abandonment of even a pretense of democracy led to Iran’s most successful electoral boycott. According to the government’s own estimate, voter participation was no higher than 43 percent. Yet, information from inside Iran presented by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, confirmed that even this was an exaggeration designed to make it look as if the system had more popular support than it did.
Any symbol of legitimacy is precious to the regime at this historical moment, when Iran is prone to popular unrest and mired in a number of simultaneous crises. Last November, Iranians from all walks of life took part in a nationwide uprising, the second in two years. Then, as in January 2018, participants again chanted slogans like “death to the dictator,” and made little secret of their desire for a wholesale change of government.
The uprising was followed, less than two months later, by the downing of a commercial airliner at the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The regime attempted to cover this up for three days before details of the incident reached the public, fueling still more protests. This was soon followed by the coronavirus outbreak, which has had a much greater impact on Iran than on any other country in the region.
The regime’s political analysts have observed that the Flight 752 disaster marked a new low for public trust in state institutions. They have also predicted that the government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak will inevitably fuel new calls for protest. For Tehran, the response to these warnings is stepped-up repression of dissent. And this is made increasingly easy by the growing hardline dominance of untrusted institutions.
It must be emphasized that these trends are not merely hypothetical. New and worse crackdowns on dissent would only continue a pattern that was established in the wake of earlier protests and earlier efforts to fill vital government offices with strong supporters of state violence. Ghalibaf certainly fits this bill, having spent much of his nearly 40-year political career boasting of his intolerance of political dissent and his willingness to personally “wield sticks” for the clerical regime.
Ghalibaf’s ascension on Thursday to the post of parliament speaker was preceded by a similarly career-defining promotion for a close associate, Ebrahim Raisi. Failing to select Raisi as his regime’s president, which could have resulted in an uprising Khamenei appointed Raisi as the new head of the judiciary, arguably an even more powerful position than head of the executive branch.
Many human rights advocates pointed to Raisi as a harbinger of even more vicious behavior by Iranian regime’s law enforcement. They were quickly proven right, with the two uprisings acting as a pair of bookends in a record of escalating brutality. In January 2018, dozens of protesters were killed in clashes with security forces and the IRGC. In November 2019, the death was much larger as the regime’s security forces opened fire on crowds with live ammunition, then arrested wounded individuals at the hospital, preventing them from receiving potentially life-saving treatment.
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) April 26, 2019
Amnesty International confirmed in a statement that IRGC operatives had been shooting to kill, and the NCRI determined
based on the reports published by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), that over 1,500 protesters had been killed over a period of about two weeks. The brutality was no doubt fueled by Tehran’s paranoia over the role that MEK played in the 2018 and 2019 uprisings. This leading Iranian opposition movement has long been recognized as the principal threat to the mullahs’ hold on power. And in recent years, regime officials have been more upfront about targeting the group than they have been since the 1980s.
Raisi and Ghalibaf’s promotions are very much a throwback to that era. Both used early crackdowns on the MEK as tools to advance their careers. As the IRGC commander in Gilan and Mazandaran Provinces, Ghalibaf promoted crackdowns on dissent in that region before moving into national operations as the founder of an intelligence division of the Basij militia and a rapid-response police force that was dedicated to quelling unrest. Raisi, meanwhile, worked mostly as a judge and made frequent use of corporal and capital punishment. In 1988, he was a leading participant in a massacre of 30,000 political prisoners that mainly targeted the MEK.
Since then, both men have not only defended their actions, but lauded them. In 2012, Ghalibaf fondly recalled personally participating in the suppression of student protests in 1999, even though it was not his job to do so. Less than a year after those remarks, Ghalibaf made his second attempt to win the presidency, but lost to Rouhani. Undeterred, he continued to dutifully promote hardline policies while defending his friends’ interests as mayor Tehran.
The payoff for this service underscored the inherent emptiness of the regime’s proto-democratic institutions. Raisi’s appointment as judiciary head had the same effect the previous year. In recognition of the lack of viable alternatives to hardline affiliates of the supreme leader, Iranians have been protesting loudly, despite a growing threat to their lives. And in February, they boycotted a sham election, keeping with the MEK’s appeals to “vote for regime change.”
Iranians are clearly willing to work toward that outcome on their own. But they need international support all the same. The longer the dream of regime change is deferred, the more “stick wielders” and “hanging judges” will pack the upper echelons of the Iranian regime. And the more that hardliners dominate the system, the more they will turn that dominance against Iran’s peaceful, activist population.