Nobody has ever thought of Thomas Hobbes living in early 21st century Iran. It was because of his experiences of the political turmoil of the English Civil Wars that he wrote Leviathan. How would he have reacted to the Iran of today? It is a difficult question to answer, and yet, Iran is today the hotbed of backstabbing factions, religious fanaticism and political violence.
As the parliamentary elections end in Iran with the conservatives and hardliners now controlling the parliament, there is no doubt that Iranians are now facing a Hobbesian state with absolute power, where the compulsions of security and survival demand minimisation and rejection of any legal or moral restraints on the use of force. In fact, nothing could be closer to the cool realism of Hobbes than the authoritarian course on which the Iranian regime has embarked. Its case rests on premises entirely consistent with Hobbes’ understanding of the sovereign state as the absolute master of all his subjects and the final arbiter of all questions in the society.
Consequently, the fact that candidates affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) won a majority of the seats in the 290-seat parliament shows, once again, that the IRGC wields control over vast segments of Iranian politics, economy and foreign policy. Though the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, as the commander-in-chief, continues to have a synergistic relationship with the IRGC, the Guards seem to play a more active role in the political decision making of Iran.
The recent control of the parliamentary elections and the disqualification of some 9,000 potential candidates, most of them reformists and moderates, by the powerful Guardian Council shows, once again, that the IRGC and conservatives close to Khamenei are trying to take over the government that, since Rouhani’s presidency, was led by a group which wanted to open relations with the West. For now, with the victory of the hardliners, the newly reshaped Iranian parliament will take a much firmer stance against the US and its allies in Europe and in the region. However, the Iranian legislature will be handed to the conservatives in a situation of political instability and economic crisis triggered by US sanctions. Also, the new hardline lawmakers will start their job as MPs in an Islamic republic which suffers from fracturing pillars of legitimacy.
The brutal crackdown, in November 2019 (1,000 people dead and 7,000 arrested), against those Iranian citizens who took to the streets to express their discontent with a 200 per cent increase in fuel prices, damaged the regime’s already fragile electoral pillar and weakened its claims to legitimacy. Around 58 million Iranians were eligible to vote in the recent parliamentary elections with 9 million voters in the capital city of Tehran. Yet, many citizens, including the Iranian urban middle-class, boycotted the elections in major cities.
The official voter turnout (42.5 per cent, which is the lowest in the history of the Islamic republic) is a clear expression of people’s disenchantment with the process of elections in Iran. Let us not forget that the turnout in the 2016 election, which was dominated by reformers who supported President Rouhani and the nuclear deal of 2015, was almost 62 per cent. Though Khamenei blamed the low turnout on the “negative propaganda” about the new coronavirus, it is clear to everyone that the Iranian regime is proving that it is incapable of reform.
Considering that President Rouhani and his cabinet were incapable of delivering their promise to build a new era of prosperity because of the immense pressure from US sanctions, Iranian hardliners are now thinking of abandoning the push to open up to Western investment and trade. They will seek to focus, instead, on regional markets. One example is Iraq, which is Iran’s second-largest export market, and depends on Iran for everything — from food, machinery and electricity to natural gas. Iraq has no other choice but to continue doing business with Iran, since, as we saw with General Qasem Soleimani’s assassination, the IRGC is deeply involved in Iraq’s political-military affairs.
The key ingredient here has been the Quds Force, the external operations wing of the IRGC, which Soleimani led before his assassination by Americans in Iraq. With the IRGC and its candidates in power in the new chamber, there is no hope that President Rouhani could ratify any key legislation during his final year in office. Also, with the hardliners having the majority in the Iranian parliament, there is no more hope for a renegotiation of the 2015 nuclear settlement from which the Donald Trump administration withdrew in 2018. Although the parliament doesn’t have much say in Iran’s foreign policy, a more hardline assembly will be able to contain the moderate agenda.
It goes without saying that the consolidation of power by Iranian hardliners will open a new chapter of illiberalism and state violence in Iranian politics. This will not only end the remaining grains of trust between the Iranian citizens and the Islamic regime, but it will also close the door for any diplomatic effort and engagement for peace in the Middle East between Tehran and the West.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 26, 2020 under the title “Old wine in old bottle.” The writer is professor-vice dean and director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace, Jindal Global University.
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