Elections in Iran Highlight Unrest at Home and Tensions Abroad

The results of Iran's most recent election are a serious sign of defeat for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Dr. Abbas Milani tells Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast.
A woman in Iran casts a ballot in the 2024 parlimentary elections. The Iranian regime is facing pressures from within and without, as dissent amongst the population grows, the conflict in Gaza continues, and geopolitics between Iran, Russia, China, and the West change.

Iran’s Parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections on March 1 saw surprisingly low voter turnout. The government’s own estimates place participation at 41%, the lowest since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Many in the opposition feel the figure is far lower, even before factoring in the number of ballots left blank or containing dissenting write-in votes.

The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, has called the elections a success, blaming any hiccups on a concentrated effort from the U.S., Israel, and opposition parties to influence citizens against voting. Dr. Abbas Milani, however, asserts that these are signs the regime is weakening.

“People found creative ways to say no to the regime,” observes Dr. Milani, who directs the Iranian Studies at Stanford University. He joined Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies on the World Class podcast to discuss what the elections say about Khamenei's hold on power and Iran’s influence in regional and global politics. Listen to their conversation below.

Click the link for the transcript of “The Widening Cracks in Iran’s Regime.”

Unrest at Home

The March elections were the first held since the 2022 protests in response to the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini following her arrest for not wearing a hijab. The incident catalyzed the Iranian public into a movement calling for the support of “Women, Life, and Freedom,” and sparked the largest and most wide-spread public demonstrations since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. In response, the regime claims more than 80,000 protestors were arrested, and reports claim executions reached record levels.

Even with this repression, people continue to push back, says Milani.

“There are people [in Iran] who are doing what Navalny was doing in Russia on a much smaller scale, and in a much more timid way, exposing the corruption of this regime and these sites within Iran. These defiant people who keep going to prison but don't stop exposing the deep corruption of the leaders of the Iranian regime and their multi-multibillion dollar heist of property.”

Some, like Iranian women’s rights activist Bahareh Hedayati, are even so bold as to openly advocate for a regime change. Even among hard-line supporters of the regime, Milani says there is growing recognition that business cannot continue as usual. 

“In a lead editorial in the newspaper Jomhouri-e Eslami, which Khamenei himself founded, it was said that these elections were a major defeat, and unless that message was heeded, the regime is going to lose,” Milani told McFaul.

Trouble in the Neighborhood

The elections also came on the heels of the October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, and the ensuing war in Gaza. While the Khamenei government initially tried to use the attacks to its advantage, Iran’s poor economy and its adamant opposition to a two-state solution has left it at odds with both the Iranian and Palestinian publics.

“Iran isn’t really standing up with Palestinians. If Iran was standing up with them in Gaza, the regime would have suggested what the majority of the Palestinians want, which is a two-state solution,” reasons Milani. 

There is a lingering question of why the U.S., and the democratic world in general, aren’t doing more to support democracy in Iran. Dr. Milani asserts that roots of the caution is two-fold: one part stemming from a perception among U.S. progressives that criticizing the Iranian regime could be viewed as Islamophobic, and the other from uncertainty over the status of Iran’s nuclear program and enrichment capabilities. 

The latter is a threat which needs to be taken seriously, says Milani.

“If you read what the Iranian officials have been saying, I think anyone has to be not paying attention if they’ve not concluded that Iran is clearly, unmistakably, threatening to go nuclear with weapons,” he cautions.

An Uncertain Road Ahead

There are no easy diplomatic solutions, given the breakdown of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal and Russia’s destabilization of nuclear policy norms and saber-rattling over the war in Ukraine. Russia, a strategic partner of Iran, is unlikely to be helpful in cooling such tensions, says Milani. But China might.

“I think China can make the regime understand,” says Milani. “Russia can work with the regime in espionage. Russia can help them in threatening dissidents. But Russia can’t have the kind of economic muscle that the regime needs to get out of this pipeline. That will only be China.”

While uncertainties about the future remain both within Iran and in regards to the consequences of its geopolitical influence, Milani is certain the tide is turning:

“These events and this election are as clear an indication as I've ever seen that the great majority of the people of Iran don't want this regime. They might not be clear on how they want to get rid of it and who they want to bring in, but clearly this has been a historic defeat.”

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