Friday, the Islamic Republic of Iran is holding parliamentary elections. Expect Iranians to use the moment to send a powerful message to their government.
Spoiler alert: It won’t be a vote of confidence.
The elections are taking place at a time of extraordinary volatility. Last year, a wave of massive street protests ended with the deaths of hundreds of Iranians. Authorities predictably blamed the unrest on foreign agitators.
Then, in early January, came the targeted killing of Iran’s most influential military commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.
Days later, as the regime allowed civilian aircraft to fly during a retaliatory raid on U.S. positions in neighboring Iraq, effectively using those civilian jets as shields to protect against possible U.S. aerial attacks, Iran’s military shot down a Ukrainian jet killing all 176 people on board, most of them Iranians.
After the regime tried and failed to cover up its responsibility for that horrific incident, angry Iranians once again took to the streets. Meanwhile, the economy is in free fall.
So how will Iranians vote? The answer: probably not at all. And that simple fact tells you everything you need to know.
Iranians have voted on many occasions since the 1979 revolution — even though they’ve always known that those elections were neither free nor fair. But there were at least some cases when there was enough of a choice to make the effort worthwhile. Iranians have traditionally used the vote to make their demands heard in an organized way, usually by voting against those politicians espousing the most isolationist and retrograde views.
In 1997, a majority of Iranians voted for the reformist presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami in that year’s presidential election. In 2013, they handed victory to Hassan Rouhani, who remains president, in return for his promise to negotiate an end to international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
Iranians have also been known to push back when their votes were ignored. In 2009, when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner despite widespread allegations of vote tampering, the supreme leader learned the hard way that lies can’t be hidden for long in the digital age.
This time is different. Iranians no longer believe their votes make any difference. So many are planning to stay home. And that apathy will dramatically reveal just how little faith they have left in their country’s official institutions. That confidence has historically ebbed and flowed, but now that the state can no longer subsidize so many of the goods and services it once did, it’s almost gone.
The regime is correspondingly nervous. Iranian leaders have long used voter turnout to legitimize their rule. It’s now likely to hit a historic low, which will underscore just how bankrupt that process has become.
Last week, Khamenei said, “It’s possible that someone doesn’t like me, but if they like Iran they must come to the ballot box.” On Tuesday, he doubled down, saying that “voting is not only a revolutionary and national responsibility, but is also a religious duty.”
The government has only itself to blame. Over the years, as the authorities realized they couldn’t get away with the brazen vote-tampering of the past, they’ve evolved toward an approach they call “engineered elections” — meaning even tighter control over the already tightly managed process for approving candidates.
In the lead-up to Friday, they’ve disallowed thousands of candidates, including some sitting lawmakers. Small wonder that ordinary citizens are increasingly opting out of the process entirely.
Some exiled activists have been urging people to boycott the election. But that’s a pointless effort. Given the lack of objective election monitors, it will be impossible to verify how many voters stayed away.
The sad reality is that Iranian voters’ public display of apathy probably won’t change anything for the better. The regime will do its best to inflate turnout figures, filling the media with images of long lines of people waiting to vote. (In a country of more than 80 million people, it will be able to find a few somewhere.) And once the election is over, Tehran will continue with the same old policies. It will go on mismanaging the economy and showing its contempt for the well-being of Iranian citizens.
But one thing is for sure: This election won’t address the fundamental issue — the deep gulf between the Iranian people and their government. The message voters send will be clear enough, and it won’t be any different than it has been in recent years: We don’t know what we want, but we know it’s not this.
Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post's correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.