Iran's Regime Is 'Terrified of Its Own People,' Human Rights Activist Says As Voters Go to the Polls

The Iranian regime can only ensure control over citizens through force, a human rights activist and lawyer has said as Iranians head to the polls for parliamentary elections.

Turnout is expected to be low, reflecting significant anger over poor economic conditions, brutal repression of protests last year and the accidental shooting down of a passenger plane outside Tehran in January.

Regime officials—including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—have urged citizens to vote, though Iran's democracy is tightly controlled by Khamenei and the 12-man Guardian Council he appoints. The group vets and approves potential candidates, and this year has barred some 9,000 of 16,000 prospective lawmakers.

Kaveh Shahrooz, a lawyer and senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Canada, spoke to Newsweek from the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy this week.

He said that while the Iranian regime has never allowed free or fair elections, "they won't even be able to hide behind the turnouts as a sign of legitimacy anymore."

Shahrooz said the recent turmoil shows that "dissatisfaction with the regime is widespread, that this regime can't deliver what people need, and that the core of the regime is terrified of its own people. And it has to use guns because it can't address their underlying grievances."

Khamenei warned this week "friends and foe" will be watching the results to see whether President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran is working, telling voters it was their duty to go to the polls.

Parliament is currently controlled by the more moderate faction, though Shahrooz said they are still "implicated in mass killings, they themselves are implicated in mass corruption."

Hardliners are poised to take back control, energized by civil unrest, the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the military exchanges with the U.S. If the hardliners do take back control, they will be in position to choose the next president in 2021.

"Whatever the results of the election, I think the international community has to realize that these elections are neither free nor fair," Shahrooz said. "They don't really mean very much at all."

He described regime rule as a "hostage situation" and warned that U.S. officials, whether under Trump or a future president, should be cautious about engagement. The regime will try to "integrate themselves into the international community without giving their own citizens any rights," Shahrooz predicted.

There is no easy answer for what can replace the theocracy, which Shahrooz said is a "real worry" for regime change advocates. Chaos in regional nations like Iraq and Syria shows what can happen when a regime loses control with no succession plan, and in Iran "there is not a coherent and unified government in waiting," Shahrooz explained.

Prominent figures in the Iranian diaspora—such as Reza Pahlavi, the son of deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi—have proposed a democratic referendum to establish a way forward, though organizing and running such a poll poses huge challenges.

Shahrooz said a shift in power can be peaceful and successful, citing the Eastern Bloc uprisings that broke up the Soviet Union. In Iran, he said dissenters will need to win over "some faction of the ruling class" and gain international support. He added that anyone suggesting a military solution would be "deeply mistaken."

Shahrooz also warned that aggressive rhetoric—for example Trump threatening to attack Iranian cultural sites—is "not helpful."

Iran, elections, poll, vote, parliament, opposition
An Iranian man is pictured casting his vote in a parliamentary election at a polling station in Tehran, Iran on February 21, 2020.. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty