With around six weeks to go before Iran’s parliamentary election, Tehran’s hardliners could scarcely have wished for a better gift from the president of the United States than the sudden, shocking killing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force.
The death of Soleimani, a cunning military commander who had a hand in conflicts from Afghanistan to Israel, has provoked mourning and celebration in equal measure across the Middle East. For Iran’s hardliners the assassination is cause for both.
Losing Soleimani – a veteran of the “Sacred Defense,” as the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s is remembered in Iran, and a true believer in spreading the Islamic revolution – is a grievous blow to the country. But with just weeks to go until a parliamentary election, it could gift the hardliners a majority in the legislature and set the stage for a real prize: electing one of their own as president in a year’s time. A decision taken impulsively in Washington will bring lasting consequences for the politics of Iran.
Until last week, Iran’s hardliners were on the back foot. Anger over a rise in fuel prices exploded in November into a wider, nationwide protest movement against the government that The New York Times called the deadliest political unrest since the Islamic revolution. Iran’s interior minister said as many as 200,000 people took part in the protests, which were brutally suppressed with the help of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The suppression of the protests was expected to galvanize supporters of political reformists to vote in the February election. Instead, the assassination of Soleimani has effectively neutralized any dissent, re-framing any criticism of the government as unpatriotic.
On Monday, there were hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions across Iran, mourning Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s most important unit. Not a single major Iranian figure, including those who have been critical of the government, has condoned the killing. With his death, Soleimani has been elevated from a commander of one branch of the military to a totemic symbol of the Iranian people. The turn-around is remarkable.
This is the second time in two years that Donald Trump has empowered the hardliners. By withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, he bolstered conservatives within Iran who have long argued for confrontation rather than dialogue with the international community.
That was the dividing line in the 2016 parliamentary election and the presidential election the following year. At that time, Hassan Rouhani, seeking re-election as president and a leading reformer, argued that dialogue and compromise would bring about an end to sanctions and an improved economy. That hope granted the reformists their first parliamentary victory in a decade.
As Iran again heads into parliamentary elections in mid-February, the situation is very different. Conservatives, including political parties backed by the IRGC, will have both a clear message and the face of an assassinated national hero to wave before the electorate. Revenge for Soleimani will be front and center in the campaign and the conciliatory approach of Rouhani will be attacked relentlessly.
The revelation from Iraq’s president that Soleimani was in Baghdad to discuss de-escalation between Riyadh and Tehran will only strengthen the feeling that dialogue with the international community is pointless.
Nor will the tsunami of patriotic support set off by Soleimani’s death fade after the parliamentary election. If conservatives win a majority, they will ensure it lasts all the way to the presidential election in 2021.
The Iranian parliament has limited powers over the presidency, but it can to an extent help or hinder the president in executing his policies. The parliament is often the battleground between different factions, supporting or sidelining the president or the Supreme Leader’s agenda. During the tenure of the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the parliament was a way for his supporters to exert leverage over the Supreme Leader.
Even before the assassination, Rouhani was under attack by the parliament, which launched impeachment proceedings against three of his ministers. A petition to impeach Rouhani himself was also in circulation but garnered insufficient numbers. After next month’s election, they may well get the numbers. The parallels with the occupant of the White House are stark and ironic.
Center stage in this scenario will be the IRGC, who have never concealed their dislike for Rouhani. In the last presidential election, Rouhani openly accused them of trying to sabotage the nuclear agreement. Then, in 2017, the conservative candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, who was backed by the Guards, hammered home the point that, a year after implementation of the 2016 nuclear agreement, ordinary Iranians were no better off.
That will again be the message for the 2021 election. Rouhani will not be eligible to stand again so it will fall to another reformist candidate to defend his legacy – a feat that today looks impossible.
If Raisi could argue in 2017 that the nuclear deal had not improved life for Iranians, how much easier will it be to advance that same argument in 2021? Even if relations do not deteriorate further – which is hard to imagine, given the warlike rhetoric emanating from Hezbollah in Lebanon through Iraqi militias to the corridors of Iranian power – conservatives will be able pinpoint the ruinous failures of Rouhani’s presidency: relations with European and Arab countries at a low point, the economy stricken by sanctions; all his key policies in tatters.
Far from weakening those who hunger for confrontation, killing Soleimani has empowered them, possibly for years to come. When they go before the Iranian public next month, Iran’s hardliners will go bearing gifts from the White House. A month before a crucial vote, Donald Trump has handed Iran’s hardliners a hero.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.