The Biden administration has wisely decided to review the United States’ use of economic sanctions. According to the Wall Street Journal, President Joe Biden aims to “stem sweeping pressure campaigns, avoid collateral economic damage and act jointly with allies rather than unilaterally.” This is a welcomed decision, and hopefully the review will also study the negative political consequences of broad-based economic sanctions. The rise of Iranian ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi is the latest example of how the economic hardship imposed on civilian populations through sanctions tends to favor the very political entities the United States views as most problematic.
Many have declared that the historically low turnout in Iran’s presidential elections last month — 48.78% though only about 42% if not counting the blank and invalid votes — is the official death certificate of the Iranian reform movement and the very idea that the Iranian system can be reformed from within. Moreover, using the theocracy’s own measuring stick of viewing voter participation as a sign of its legitimacy, the low-turnout has been seen in many quarters as a rejection of the system as a whole.
These arguments presume, however, that the support for the reform movement was rooted in the belief that reforming the Iranian system was an affirmation of the Iranian theocracy. On the contrary, given the bitter experience of the 1979 Revolution, the non-violent reform movement has largely been the preferred path due to its low cost and low risk characteristics, compared to more drastic approaches, such as revolts and armed resistance.
What happened in the 2021 election was a clear signal that confidence in the utility of the low cost/low risk strategy of voting in the elections have taken a significant hit — but without the population necessarily shifting toward more drastic approaches. Until that happens, it appears premature to declare the reform movement dead since it wasn’t favored on its own merits as much as on the lack of merits of alternative approaches. Still, the idea of seeking change through elections has lost profound credibility, as has the reform movement. However, solely pointing to the open engineering of the candidate slate as the reason for this loss of confidence is problematic.
WHY VOTER TURNOUT WAS SO LOW IN IRAN
Indeed, manipulation of the elections is not something new, although the conservatives went to extreme lengths this time around. But they tried the same in 2013 — and failed. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani was surprisingly disqualified in 2013, leaving only two non-conservatives in the race: Former Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref and former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani. Neither were household names in Iran at the time. With Rafsanjani’s disqualification, it appeared that the population would boycott the elections since — much as in 2021 — they weren’t offered real options.
Trump’s maximum pressure strategy devastated Iran’s economy, and a significant portion of the middle class — the backbone of the reform movement — were moved into poverty.
Yet, turnout in 2013 was massive: 72.2%. The reformists and centrist created an alliance with Aref withdrawing in favor of Rouhani and pursued the reformist and anti-establishment vote. Two influential figures, former presidents Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, embarked on a massive online campaign to compel the public to vote, promising that there wouldn’t be a repeat of the 2009 election fraud. Rouhani’s platform was largely built on his pledge to resolve the nuclear dispute with the United States diplomatically and by that, get Iran’s economy back on track again. Due to these efforts, despite the election manipulation and Rafsanjani’s disqualification, the relatively unknown Rouhani went from 8.1% in the polls a week before the elections to a stunning victory of 50.71% of the vote on election day.
Why couldn’t this feat be repeated in 2021? Indeed, mindful of the significant voter participation in 2017 — two percentage points higher than in 2013 — and with Rouhani winning 57.14% of the vote — which is 5 million votes more than he gained in 2013 — the massive drop in support and enthusiasm for the centrists and reformists cannot solely be explained by the manipulation of the slate of candidates.
That’s where former President Donald Trump’s sanctions policy comes in.
THE IMPACT OF US SANCTIONS ON IRAN’S DOMESTIC POLITICS
Rouhani’s strategy was to resolve the nuclear issue through diplomacy and compromise and reintegrate Iran with the global economy. At first, the strategy worked well. Against all odds, an agreement was concluded in 2015 — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — and Iran’s economy made significant gains. For example, Iran’s GDP growth in 2016 was a stunning 13.4%. Though these economic gains didn’t necessarily meet the public’s expectations since most of the growth came from oil sales and not job creation, they nevertheless gave him 5 million more votes in 2017.
Whatever was gained, however, was quickly lost once Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018. Trump’s maximum pressure strategy devastated the economy, shrinking the GDP by more than 12% between 2018–2019. The number of poor Iranians increased from 22 million to 32 million while the middle class shrunk from 45% to 30% of the population. A significant portion of the middle class — the backbone of the reform movement — were moved into poverty.
The result has been the stigmatization of the idea of engagement with the West as a solution to Iran’s economic woes — and the discrediting of the centrists and reformists for having put their trust in diplomacy with the United States. This has been the central message of the hardliners: You voted for Rouhani and the reformists to secure a better future through relations with the United States and Europe, but you were duped not only because the U.S. predictably betrayed the agreement, but because Rouhani had no Plan B to save Iran’s economy once it did. He had naively put all of his eggs in the basket of the JCPOA and the idea of coming to terms with the United States because of the reformists’ enamourment with Western countries.
Once Trump pulled out and reimposed sanctions, Rouhani was left with no strategy, no plan, because he had foolishly, in this narrative, been so trusting of the United States that he did not envision a scenario where it could betray the deal.
HOW IRANIANS LOST FAITH IN REFORMS
The hardliner narrative reads something like this: We warned you not to trust the West, but Rouhani didn’t listen. We will continue the JCPOA — we are not against engagement — but will have Plan Bs and Cs up our sleeve to protect Iran’s economy, which will include investment in a resistance economy, increased pressure throughout the region through the Quds forces, etc.
This message may not have convinced a large number of former Rouhani voters to back Raisi, but enough to make them lose faith in the reformist’s approach to engagement with the West and, as a result, stay home on election day.
Indeed, Raisi didn’t see a major surge in his votes between 2017 and 2021 (15.7 million and 18.0 million respectively). Rather, the headline of the 2021 election is the massive drop in confidence in Rouhani and the centrists thanks to Trump’s betrayal of the JCPOA. Rouhani secured 23.5 million votes in 2017, while Abdolnaser Hemmati — the reformist candidate in 2021 — only gained 2.4 million votes in 2021. Most of the remaining 21 million voters appear to have stayed home on election day.
As the Biden team conducts its much-needed review of the United States’ use of sanctions, most of the focus will be on the limited success rate of sanctions, the manner they have undermined the primacy of the US dollar, and their impact on civilian populations. But given Biden’s focus on countering authoritarian governments globally, it would be a mistake to neglect the role of broad-based sanctions in undermining the forces for democracy in other countries.
Trita Parsi is the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute of Responsible Statecraft.