Pres­ident of Iran Ali Khamenei I Wiki­media Commons

Iran expe­ri­enced its lowest voter turnout ever for its Feb. 21 par­lia­mentary elec­tions. Since the regime managed the elec­tions, it was no sur­prise that hardline can­di­dates took 221 of the 290 seats in par­liament. But the low turnout and general boycott of the election is a bell­wether that the ruling elite is becoming increas­ingly detached from the public and Ira­nians are becoming dis­il­lu­sioned with the government. 

It’s time for the United States to increase pressure on Iran even more so that Iranian frus­tration with the regime con­tinues to grow. Since the United States has already maxed itself out on Iran sanc­tions, the best way to pressure Iran is through its neighbors who are still engaged in trade, such as the United Arab Emi­rates. The United States should seek to pressure the UAE into applying sanc­tions to Iran, and as the economy would suffer even more, Iranian dis­il­lu­sionment with the regime would grow and could even­tually lead to change. 

The election had the lowest turnout since 1979, despite the regime’s pressure and pleading with the public to turn up at the polls. Aya­tollah Ali Khamenei asked the people to vote for the sake of patri­otism and resis­tance to U.S. sanc­tions, while the regime-sup­porting senior aya­tollahs said that voting was a reli­gious duty. But the official turnout was only about 20% in Tehran and 40% nationally. And those numbers were likely inflated by the regime. There was a 62% turnout in 2016, and 66% in 2012. 

Iranian elec­tions have always been a farce because they are managed and fixed by the regime. Khamenei is not inter­ested in a demo­c­ratic system but in strength­ening his own rule. That’s why every can­didate had to be pre-approved by the Guardian Council, a 12-member body tasked with upholding Islamic law and super­vising elec­tions. In this election, the Guardian Council dis­qual­ified more than 7,000 can­di­dates, many of them mod­erates and reformists who support former Pres­ident Mohammad Khatami’s movement to allow more freedom and democracy in the Iranian political system. 

Though elec­tions are managed by the regime, they still carry some weight. Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House in London, explained that though the elec­tions have always been managed by the regime since the rise of the Islamic Republic, they are still important. Since 1979, elec­tions in Iran have been a tool for the leaders to build con­sensus at home and make a show of outward strength to the rest of the world. 

“The fact that Iran has elec­tions, albeit managed ones, is used to demon­strate that the Islamic Republic is more legit­imate than other coun­tries in the region,” Vakil said.

Iran’s leaders sought to use this election to build public con­sensus and show outward strength after November’s violent sup­pression of protests and January’s unrest sur­rounding Qasem Soleimani’s assas­i­nation and the military’s shooting down of the Ukrainian air­liner. But many Ira­nians were dis­con­tented with the dis­qual­i­fi­cation of so many can­di­dates and thus the majority of the pop­u­lation boy­cotted the elections. 

“I won’t be part of the show as long as I can’t see my favorite can­didate who I gen­uinely support and believe in. I won’t choose between bad and worse anymore,” one Tehran res­ident told the Wall Street Journal. 

Ira­nians were more than just dis­con­tented with the chosen can­di­dates. Many are also skep­tical of elected offi­cials and dis­ap­pointed in their pow­erless positions. 

“MPs who speak out against the system’s radical policies haven’t been able to change any­thing. So you tell me: Why bother?” Bardia, an Iranian infor­mation tech­nology manager, told the Wall Street Journal. 

Khamenei uses the par­liament for his own self interest. In this case, he stacked the par­liament with hard­liners to neuter mod­erate Pres­ident Hassan Rouhani who has been trying to nego­tiate with the United States. The new par­liament will not seek to ease ten­sions with the United States, which will leave the Iranian economy in shambles and only increase the public dis­content with the regime. 

After the United States pulled out of the 2015 Joint Com­pre­hensive Plan of Action in 2018 and reim­posed sanc­tions on Iran, the Iranian economy floun­dered and there has been no improvement. In 2018 alone, Iranian inflation reached 33.5% while growth declined by at least 6%. And with current con­di­tions and sanc­tions still imposed, the U.N. pre­dicted that Iran’s economy will shrink by 2.7% and inflation will remain above 30% in 2020. The current rest­lessness among Ira­nians is in large part due to the crum­bling economy and the regime’s refusal to improve it. 

Khamenei and his gov­ernment will keep the economy in shambles by refusing to nego­tiate with the United States. Rouhani was the only person in Iran trying to improve rela­tions with the United States, and now Khamenei has taken that power away from him with the new hard­liner par­liament. Now Ira­nians are blaming Khamenei and his gov­ernment for the eco­nomic problems and the decline of Iran. 

One NPR reporter spoke to Ira­nians asking them, “Who do you blame for Iran’s eco­nomic trouble?” One Iranian quickly replied, “I think our government.” 

Another Iranian told NPR, “Most of our politi­cians have a bird’s‑eye view and don’t under­stand the troubles of the lower classes.” 

The United States already applies eco­nomic, trade, sci­en­tific, and mil­itary sanc­tions against Iran, so there is not much more damage the United States can do on its own to the Iranian economy — there is hardly any more trade between the two coun­tries. But the UAE is still a major trade partner with Iran and the best way for the United States to pressure Iran would be by con­vincing the UAE to apply sanc­tions against Iran. 

According to Iranian sta­tistics, about 10% of all Iranian imports and 15% of its exports are through the UAE. Last year, Iranian exports to the UAE totalled about $1.55 billion. Because the United States is one of the UAE’s biggest trade partners and allies, it would be easy for the country to con­vince the UAE to apply eco­nomic pressure on Iran. In 2018, trade between the UAE and the United States totalled $24.5 billion, with the United States exporting $19.5 billion to the UAE. 

With so much rest­lessness sur­rounding the Iranian elec­tions this is the perfect time for the United States to pressure Iran via the UAE. The Iranian economy needs to con­tinue to crumble for the dis­il­lu­sionment to keep growing until it affects change. It is a bit of hard ball pol­i­ticking since the Iranian public will suffer under the eco­nomic strain, but this seems the best way to bring about change, or at least civilian dis­content with the regime in Iran. 


Abby Liebing is a senior studying history. She is the asso­ciate editor of The Col­legian and a columnist on foreign politics.