February 02, 2016
Get ready for another election crackdown in Iran--the Iranian regime is.
The hardliners in the Iranian regime have set the stage for the upcoming elections to Parliament and the Assembly of Experts to prevent moderates and reformists from gaining influence, particularly over the selection of the Supreme Leader’s successor. Knowing that they are thwarting the desires of reformists and moderates, which make up a significant part of the Iranian electorate, they fear a repeat of the tumult that followed the rigged 2009 presidential elections and are readying the tools to suppress dissent.
A lot is at stake in these elections. The Assembly of Experts elected in February will almost certainly select the next Supreme Leader during its eight-year term. Khamenei and his hard-line supporters believe that the U.S. is attempting to interfere in this succession process through the elections. Mohsen Rezaei, the former commander of the IRGC, claimed that “The enemy intends to influence the elections and bring votes for the liberals...and weaken the office of the Supreme Leader.” Khamenei’s concerns have been heightened in the aftermath of the Iran deal and the lifting of sanctions because he believes that increased interaction with the U.S. and its European allies opens the way for Western infiltration of Iranian society. He and the regime’s hardliners see reformist politicians and clerics as Western agents who aim to subvert his rule to benefit the U.S. They are determined to keep them from gaining power.
Khamenei therefore ordered the IRGC’s intelligence arm to counter Western infiltration in September. Several reporters and hundreds of online activists were arrested in the following months. A conservative parliamentarian remarked that the crackdown was likely intended to restrict public discourse and “cause fear among reporters” ahead of the elections.
The regime has moved even more aggressively in recent weeks to ensure its control of an increasingly fractured political environment. As a first step, Khamenei and his allies narrowed the political competition by tossing out thousands of candidates for parliament and selecting a short list of the Assembly of Experts. IRGC intelligence officials have reportedly harassed and threatened several prominent reformists and journalists in the past month. They shut down Bahar, a reformist newspaper, for publishing articles “damaging to the foundation of the Islamic Republic.” The Iranian Cyber Police recently announced an increase in its monitoring of political activists in cyberspace, likely in response to the controversy over the regime’s disqualification of reformist candidates. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has also launched a system to monitor group texting.
In addition, the regime has strengthened its internal security apparatus ahead of the elections, most notably through legislation, which Parliament approved on January 26 that strengthens Iran’s Basij Organization, a paramilitary force integrated into the IRGC, at the expense of local police forces and embeds Basijis more fully in residential areas. In 2009, the Basijis played a key role in suppressing protests through force and intimidation. Those protests were notable for the chanting of large numbers of Iranians from their own houses and apartment buildings even as regime forces dispersed the crowds in the streets. Deploying Basijis to residential areas in advance of the elections, therefore, could prevent or mitigate a repetition of that kind of activity. The Basij law is the clearest indication yet that the regime fears that real protests could emerge during or after these elections, and that it is prepared to use force to preempt and to crush them.
It is too early to know whether Iranians will take to the streets as the regime prevents them from voting for reformist candidates. The election might well pass smoothly. If the protests come, however, the regime intends to be ready for them.