SOAS Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam talks to TRT World about the upcoming Iranian parliamentary election.

As Iranians countdown the number of days left until the general election, many will have to vote without their preferred candidates on the ballot.

The vote is consequently seen not just as a test of how Iranians feel about the candidates on offer but also their stance on the entire Islamic Republic.

Mass abstentions will be perceived by many in the west as a lack of approval for the ruling system, which was put into place by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

The election comes amid tensions between Iran and the US over the extrajudicial killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani and Washington's unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which reinstated sanctions on Tehran.

TRT World spoke to Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor of Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies at School of African and Oriental Studies- University of London.

Professor Adib-Moghaddam was educated at the University of Hamburg, American University, and Cambridge.

He was also the first Jarvis Doctorow Fellow in International Relations and Peace Studies at St Edmund Hall and the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.

He has written or co-written a number of books on Iran and the wider region, including On the Arab Revolts and the Iranian Revolution, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2014.

In addition to his scholarly contributions, the professor has also appeared as an expert providing insight into Iranian, Islamic, and Arab issues on various media outlets, including; Al Jazeera, CNN, and the Guardian, among several others.

He tweets at @Adib_Moghaddam.

A transcript of the interview can be found below.

TRT World: What do you expect from the upcoming elections in Iran?

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam: The context of the election is unlikely to allow for a major surprise. Iran is under an economic siege by the United States. The country is threatened with military action on a regular basis, and its leaders are victims of assassination campaigns. These factors are likely to radicalise domestic politics, as it would be the case in any other country, whose sovereignty is targeted from the outside. Research into such dynamics has demonstrated that hardliners always prosper within a context of antagonism and conflict, especially if it emanates from the outside. And then there is the incompetence and political apathy of the “reformists” and the “centrists”, in particular the Rouhani administration which is exemplary for the pragmatic wing of Iranian politics. But pragmatism translated into apathy, inaction, and in the final view of most Iranians: Betrayal of their demands. The president was voted into office to reform the system. He failed, indeed he didn’t even try. He got a second term in office with an overwhelming mandate from the Iranian people to liberalise the country and to foster better international relations. He tried the latter by betting everything on improved relations with the United States. He was made to fail, and didn’t have a plan B. This is why Hassan Rouhani will leave office with no legacy to count for.  

A man looks on parliamentary election campaign posters in Tehran, Iran February 19, 2020.
A man looks on parliamentary election campaign posters in Tehran, Iran February 19, 2020. (Reuters)

Eight reformist parties will stand in the election as part of a joint slate - do they stand a chance of gaining more power?

AAM: Reformism in Iran requires leadership. As it stands, this leadership is missing. Even if the reformist block garners more votes, it would not translate into significant changes under the current circumstances. Having said that, there continues to be what I have called a pluralistic momentum in Iran, that is driven by the immensely resourceful civil society of the country. This bottom-up process will continue to solicit results and compromises from the state. It is just that the politicians of the country are lagging behind the political culture of their constituencies. Iranians are far ahead of their state. The reformist, in particular, have failed to absorb and articulate the demands of their supporters, exactly because they lack leadership and/or political acumen.

More than half of the candidates who wanted to stand were not allowed to run. Why has the vetting system been harsher?

AAM: It is not harsher than previous ones. The mainstream, western media, and that of its vassal states in the region, have an obvious interest in portraying it as particularly harsh. I went back and read through the headlines before previous elections. They are similar. Indeed, they seem cut and pasted into the current elections, even when they were more “liberal”. The fact remains that there is this vetting system in Iran, which is skewed in favour of the system as it is interpreted by the Council of Guardians. 

In this picture released by official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, President Hassan Rouhani, speaks during his official endorsement ceremony as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, right, judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani, second left, and head of the Assembly of Experts and secretary of Guardian Council Ahmad Jannati listen in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017.
In this picture released by official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, President Hassan Rouhani, speaks during his official endorsement ceremony as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, right, judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani, second left, and head of the Assembly of Experts and secretary of Guardian Council Ahmad Jannati listen in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017. (AP)

The pluralistic momentum that I have talked about has repeatedly challenged this institutional set up. But so far it has not translated into institutional change, and legal amendments that would confine the power of the Council of Guardians, and by that to open up the system to more public accountability which would immediately extend the legitimacy of the system. Paradoxically, such changes may come from the “hardliners” now. Even someone like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, incompetent in many other ways, was sceptical about some theocratic elements of the state. It may well be that a “hard-line” parliament, and a lay, “hard-line” President will be the key to such institutional changes, as they can’t be easily labelled enemies of the state, or “sell-outs”. The pluralistic momentum, then, may turn the equation in Iran upside down.     

According to a poll by the Iranian Students Polling Agency, a considerable number of people in Tehran said they will not take part in the election. What do you think about the turnout at elections?

AAM: Judging from previous elections, Iranians tend to surprise outside observers and defy polls. I think in the aftermath of the assassination of General Soleimani and the current sanctions terror, a good part of Iranian society will mobilise to participate. On average electoral participation in Iran is by far higher than in liberal democracies, so it may well be that numbers drop, but that they remain higher than in other countries with elections. Be that as it may, the media propaganda administered by Donald Trump and his allies will try to portray the elections as a major disaster. 

An Iranian woman shows a photo of the late Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, during a protest against the killing of Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in front of United Nations office in Tehran, Iran January 3, 2020.
An Iranian woman shows a photo of the late Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, during a protest against the killing of Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in front of United Nations office in Tehran, Iran January 3, 2020. (Reuters)

As far as I am concerned, every single Iranian vote counts, as it represents the legitimate hopes and fears of Iranians who are living through a nightmare that is not of their making. In analytical terms, this election will be most interesting, as a precursor to the Presidential elections in 2021, and not because of the turnout.  

How will recent developments, such as US sanctions, the protests last winter and the assassination of Soleimani, affect the election?

AAM: As indicated: The politics of any state harassed from the outside favours the hard-liners. This is why the right-wing all over the world seeks confrontation. Donald Trump is a good example. Benyamin Netanyahu another one, and unrelated to any of them, Hitler also emerged out of the mayhem of the First World War and the subjugation of Germany after the Treaty of Versailles. So the humbug of democracy promotion by western states, including the EU, is hypocritical. No one in western capitals should complain about a radical parliament and a hard-line President. After all, when the EU reneged on its promises during the Presidency of  Mohammad Khatami, who suspended nuclear enrichment on Iranian territory in return for sanctions relief, the hardliners around President Ahmadinejad emerged. The EU has been equally cowardly in terms of the US breach of the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), and the INSTEX fata morgana that never happened. Recently, I gave a front-page interview in the Iranian press arguing for an escalation of the nuclear file in Iran, if Trump gets re-elected. I am not a friend of nuclear weapons, of course. But from a purely analytical perspective,  it is true, as the so-called “hard-liners” argue, that every time Iran compromised on its nuclear file, the “west” betrayed its promises. In Europe, in particular, we have been closing our eyes to an economic terror campaign that is killing Iran’s most vulnerable members of society, and we have tolerated unlawful killings. We can’t expect that peace and love will flourish, when we have become part of a policy of antagonism and betrayal.

You have written quite extensively on Iran and the Arab Middle East also, how do you see the outcome of the upcoming vote impacting the wider region?

AAM: The parliamentary elections will be important as a future yardstick for the direction of Iranian domestic politics. But as you will find in my work about the country: The strategic preferences of the state will remain largely similar, as they are rooted in the revolutionary process that brought about the current foreign policy culture of the state. So for instance, it doesn’t really matter in which direction the vote swings: The Iranian state will continue to support the quest for a Palestinian state, as this is a strategic preference of the political class. The discourse of the government may change, but the content and contours of the international policies will not alter fundamentally.

Source: TRT World