Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballots during the parliamentary and key clerical body elections at a polling station in Tehran on March 1, 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Interview: Iran’s Post-Election Trajectory

In this interview with Afkār, Iran scholar Shahram Akbarzadeh discusses Iran’s domestic and regional policy outlook in the wake of the parliamentary election held on March 1, 2024.

March 17, 2024
Shahram Akbarzadeh

1. At 41%, voter turnout for Iran’s March 1, 2024, parliamentary elections was the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic, indicating a crisis of legitimacy as a hardline faction maintains its nearly two-decades-long grip on power. What is the significance of this election for the domestic political landscape?

The poor election turnout was a reminder of the extent of the disconnect between the Iranian public and the ruling regime. The authorities have consistently pointed to the participation rate as a measure of legitimacy. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has famously asked dissidents and those who do not approve of him personally to take part and vote. So the lowest turn-out in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran is no doubt viewed with concern and anxiety by the leadership. Concluding that the political legitimacy of the ruling regime is in free fall is difficult to avoid. This comes on the heels of a massive, sustained public protest beginning in September 2022 under the banner of “Woman, Life, Freedom,” which shook the foundations of the regime.

Yet, the election has allowed the hardliners to consolidate control, seriously marginalize pragmatists, and remove reformists from echelons of power. The parliament, the presidency, and the judicial system are all under the firm grasp of the hardliners, and all are reporting to the supreme leader. This factional alignment at the top is likely to serve as an echo chamber and simply reinforce hardline views on Iran’s domestic and foreign policies. They could look at the 41% participation rate as evidence that their hard-line beliefs continue to have the support of a substantial part of the population.


2. What are the implications of this election for Iran’s regional policy, amid the war on Gaza and related regional tensions involving Iran-backed armed non-state actors?

Iranian authorities see the war in Gaza, Israel’s indiscriminate killing of Palestinians, and the U.S. support for Israel against widespread global condemnation, as a vindication of its hard-line position on Israel. Iran was vehemently against the normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states under the rubric of the Abraham Accords. As Arab states such as UAE and Bahrain retract their commitment to the Accords in the face of Israeli atrocities, Iranian authorities renew their belief that they are on the right side of history. As a consequence, the Iranian leadership is likely to double down on its uncompromising position regarding the United States, which has been a constant fixture of Iranian foreign policy for more than four decades.

Iranian antagonism towards the United States will present significant challenges for the region. The U.S. continues to have good relations with Gulf Cooperation Council member states, and any flare-up of tensions between Iran and the U.S. will present security and political risks that can engulf the region. The most serious risks are the closure of the Strait of Hormuz to cripple the flow of maritime traffic and hurt U.S. interests, as well as the global economy, and the activation of various paramilitary groups aligned with Iran to target U.S. assets in the GCC. These are not immediate options for Iran, but as tensions ratchet up the risk grows.


3. Given the election results and the country’s broader political outlook, what recommendations do you have for policymakers and international actors engaging with Iran, such as on negotiations regarding the nuclear file and Tehran’s regional aspirations?

At the heart of Iranian global and regional behavior is a deep anxiety about being marginalized and not taken seriously. The memory of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) continues to weigh on the minds of Iranian policymakers when the U.S. and the GCC seemed bent on destroying Iran by supporting Saddam Hussein. Iranian anxiety frames its foreign policy thinking. That anxiety is masked by grandiose declarations about the pursuit of justice and a ‘just world order’ in which the U.S. can no longer dictate terms to weaker states. In this vision, a great historical injustice will be remedied in the new world order and Iran will take its rightful place among the community of states as an equal player.


Any effort to engage Iran needs to pacify this deep-seated anxiety and address the–sometimes real–concern that diplomatic engagement with Iran is a cover for a hidden agenda: regime change. This seriously limits options for the international community against the backdrop of condemnation against Tehran’s support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis, as well as global sympathy for the anti-regime protests in 2022-2023. Yet progress can be made by taking Iranian concerns about its nuclear program and security seriously, and ensuring that the Iranian authorities notice that diplomatic interlocutors are listening. It may not be possible to progress the nuclear file amid rising tensions and mistrust. But engagement with Iran on its security concerns, most urgently terrorist activities linked to groups based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, could help build confidence and reduce tension.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.


Issue: Elections
Country: Iran


Nonresident Senior Fellow
Shahram Akbarzadeh is a nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs. He is a research professor of Middle East and Central Asian politics and deputy director of the international unit at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation of Deakin University in Australia. Akbarzadeh’s research focus includes transnational linkages and… Continue reading Interview: Iran’s Post-Election Trajectory