Butterfly Effect: Iran's Returning to the 2020 Race — Advantage: Trump - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Tehran's people listen to a speech from Iran's supreme leader.
SourceHamid Vakili/NurPhoto via Getty


Tensions are likely to escalate under a new, conservative Iranian parliament. And this time, it won't help liberals to blame President Trump.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Just two months ago, the U.S. and Iran appeared poised for a dangerous military conflict. After an American drone killed Qassem Soleimani — the Iranian general driving his country’s regional expansionism — Tehran threatened to respond with force.

Saner heads on both sides pulled back from the brink. Iranian missiles slammed into American bases in Iraq but didn’t kill anyone. The impeachment proceedings and the Democratic primaries took over the news cycle. The Iran tensions melted into the background. They didn’t even get a mention in the Feb. 19 Las Vegas Democratic debate.

All that’s likely to change, with Iran’s hardliners securing a thumping majority in last Friday’s parliamentary elections. Prepare for Iran to return to the 2020 election cycle as an important subject of debate. And when that happens, it will almost certainly be to the advantage of President Donald Trump.

The Principalists, as the conservative loyalists of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei call themselves, have secured more than 220 out of 290 seats in Iran’s parliament, the majlis, though the final count in the country’s notoriously opaque electoral process is still unclear.

The results mark a consolidation of legislative power behind the religious right, and an electoral defeat for reformists within Iran’s mainstream politics, represented by President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Some implications are obvious. Two years after Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, last week’s results tighten the bolts on any window of hope left for the revival of the landmark 2015 agreement. Like many conservatives in the U.S., the Principalists in Iran never bought into the deal and have consistently opposed any rapprochement with Washington. Think of them as the John Boltons of Iran.

Now in firm control of the legislature — and still smarting from Soleimani’s assassination — they’ll likely seek to further extend the country’s external influence in West Asia, both directly and through proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. There will be an escalation in provocative statements and actions against the U.S. and its allies like Israel. The likelihood of the kind of events that led up to the assassination of Soleimani — including Iranian proxies targeting American soldiers in Iraq — has risen. It’s mostly a question of when, not if.

Those provocations — when they happen — will be impossible to ignore for candidates competing to win America’s presidential mandate in November. And they’ll be hard to pin on Trump, unlike in January, when the president’s decision to order the drone strike clearly led to an escalation of previously simmering tensions. Democratic presidential candidates who roundly criticized Trump then will find it harder to target him effectively if the provocations come from Iran’s military and intelligence agencies.

To be sure, Rouhani remains Iran’s president and has in recent weeks indicated he remains open to talks with the U.S. But it’s important to see the parliamentary elections in Iran for what they truly were: a power grab by conservatives backed by a regime that wanted to demonstratively show Rouhani his place. More than 7,000 mostly moderate candidates — including two-thirds of the outgoing parliament — were barred from contesting. In a remarkable moment for the Islamic republic, Rouhani publicly spoke out against those restrictions. “Do not tell the people that for every seat in parliament, there are 17, 170 or 1,700 candidates running in the election,” he said in a televised speech before the elections. “Seventeen-hundred candidates from how many factions? Seventeen candidates from how many parties? From one party? This is not an election.” His warning was ignored.

Yet the victory of hardliners was Pyrrhic. Coming on the back of those disqualifications, Iran’s accidental downing of an airliner that killed 176 people and street protests over economic mismanagement, the elections witnessed a record low turnout — just 42.6 percent. It was a vote of no-confidence in the regime and a defeat for the country’s already weak democracy.

11th Parliamentary elections in Iran

An Iranian woman casts her ballot.

Source Fatemeh Bahrami/Getty

That’s not the message Iran’s right has tried to project to its voters, though. “Victory for the anti-American candidates, a new slap for Trump,” wrote the conservative Kayhan newspaper as the results started streaming in.

Expect that rhetoric to grow more shrill as Iran’s conservatives try to present themselves as a credible alternative to moderates, whose failed attempts at bringing economic gains through the nuclear deal have frustrated their supporters. Like America, Iran has presidential elections coming up — in 2021. And like in America, fear and ignorance of the “other” have a constituency in Iran too.

Sadly, it’s not hard to imagine the latter half of 2020 mirroring the start of the year, with potential war clouds hovering over the presidential race. And Democrats will need a smarter response than blaming Trump. Iran may yet pose a key test they need to pass to win the presidency.  

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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