Iran’s election on Friday was a blow to moderates, a disappointment for conservative rulers and bad news for the region too. The result was largely ordained before anyone could cast a ballot. Hardliners appear to have swept the parliamentary contest – taking all 30 seats in Tehran – because the authorities ensured that they would. The Guardian Council, which is loosely under the control of the supreme leader, had disqualified around half of the thousands of candidates for the 290-seat body, including 90 serving members. While parliament’s powers are limited, it can impede the president and shape the political environment; with a presidential race due next year, the result sets a course for conservative control of every branch of government – as seen during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s grim tenure.

Yet the outcome of Friday’s poll was far from the endorsement sought. Despite the supreme leader’s exhortations to vote, the extension of polling hours and the anger engendered by the US assassination of Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds force, a usually active electorate stayed away. Turnout stood at just 42.5%, the first time it has dipped below 50% since the 1979 revolution; in Tehran it was just 25%.

Though Ayatollah Khamenei blamed Iran’s enemies for exaggerating the threat of the new coronavirus, it is not surprising that so many voters saw little point in participating. Not only were their candidates struck from this contest, but they have little to show for supporting them in the past. In 2013, the moderate Hassan Rouhani won the presidency pledging to end his country’s isolation and revive its economy. The resulting nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) ensured a landslide when he stood again in 2017. Yet the opposition he has faced internally, the moderates’ own shortcomings and, above all, the Trump administration’s hostility have left the country in desperate straits. The unilateral US withdrawal from the JCPOA and its reimposition of sanctions are strangling the country’s economy: the World Bank estimates that it shrank by almost 9% last year. Inflation and unemployment have soared. Europe’s efforts to shore up the deal have yet to offer relief; they must continue.

The frustrations found an outlet in November’s brutally suppressed protests – the third outbreak of unrest in as many years – and have only grown since then. The shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane, which Iran denied for days before admitting responsibility, prompted fresh protests and further exposed the rifts between and within the country’s institutions. Now a coronavirus outbreak, the deadliest outside China, is spreading in a country where the health system is already under immense strain due to sanctions. It will also deepen economic woes: on Sunday, Pakistan and Turkey announced they were closing their borders and Afghanistan said it was suspending all travel to and from the country.

Domestic incompetence and corruption have unquestionably contributed to the hopelessness that so many Iranians feel today. But it is above all the Trump administration’s choices – in walking out of the JCPOA, imposing punishing sanctions and assassinating General Suleimani, arguably the second most powerful man in the country after the supreme leader – which have tightened the grip of hardliners and strengthened the belief that cultivating its nuclear programme and its proxies is a better bet than counting on meetings with western diplomats. A vital opportunity has been squandered, and Iranians are paying the price. Others may do so too.

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