US sanctions have curbed the Iranian government’s destabilizing and expansionist activities in the Middle East. They have weakened Iran’s financial capabilities and its ability to invest in high-tension areas in the region or in conflict zones in Africa and South America. Iran’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile program, directly bankrolled by Iran’s oil and gas revenues, have also been curtailed.
US sanctions have also had an important impact on domestic politics, especially with regard to voter turnout. There is no doubt that US sanctions have limited voter turnout, with the last parliamentary elections in February witnessing the lowest turnout since the 1979 revolution. According to government statistics, the voter turnout was 42 percent, however, opposition leaders believe that the actual turnout was even lower than this figure. The Iranian government blamed the outbreak of the coronavirus on the low voter turnout.
US sanctions will continue to increase poverty, unemployment and inflation rates in Iran. This will have a direct impact on voter turnout in future elections, with the presidential elections scheduled in 2021. If the US sanctions continue, Iran’s foreign exchange reserves will reach zero and foreign debt will increase. Under these circumstances, loyalists will also be deprived of government subsidies and voter turnout in the next elections is expected to decline by another 10 percent to 20 percent.
How Have the Sanctions Worked?
The Islamic Republic is governed by a centralized and maximalist government, meaning that 1) the government monopolizes resources (about 80 percent), 2) the government wants the maximum number of people to be dependent on it (about half of the population live on the government’s payroll), and 3) the government wants to have the maximum impact on the Iranian people through cultural, social, and political engineering. Therefore, any US policy that targets one of these three pillars and mitigates their impact will influence the behavior of the Iranian government, and importantly lead to the Iranian people distancing themselves from the political system.
US sanctions on Iran’s oil industry have resulted in oil exports dwindling. Iran can export energy and goods to Iraq but cannot receive its money. It has recently been announced that Iran’s $5 billion has been blocked in Iraqi banks.
Under US sanctions, the government cannot play its maximalist role. The Iranian government has complained about its size and is seeking to cut personnel. Several hiring programs have been halted during the last two years.
The depletion of financial and human resources will naturally affect the extent to which the government can influence and control the lives of the Iranian people. Today more than 93 percent of the people in Tehran are dissatisfied with the conditions and management of the country. The US sanctions weaken the government’s financial capabilities and it can no longer splash money to justify its authority and legitimacy.
A Significant Decline in Participation Over the Next Five Years
If sanctions continue for up to five years, allegiance to the political system will dramatically shrink and the government will be in a catastrophic situation. Because of the US sanctions, the Iranian government will have to take the following steps:
1) Shut down propaganda apparatuses used to enforce loyalty and mobilize the people, such as the Office for Promoting Virtue and Prohibition of Vice, the Friday Prayer Office, the Prayer Office, the Islamic Advertising Organization, and the Islamic Advertising Bureau, as well as other propaganda apparatuses under the auspices of the IRGC;
2) A significant percentage of public sector employees will be dismissed, and these people will, in turn, cut their loyalties to the government. Iran’s public and government institutions have about 10 million salaried employees (retired, temporary and permanent staff; personnel under contract with the IRGC; and staff under the supreme leader’s office and its affiliated agencies);
3) The economic share of rent-seeking and privileged classes who have helped in mobilizing the Iranian population on behalf of the Iranian government will shrink and this will harm their mobilization capabilities;
4) The government will have fewer resources to spend on its oppressive apparatuses, which force the Iranian people to participate in elections; and
5) The government will cut subsidies, and this will lead to many Iranians distancing themselves from the political system.
As a result of the aforementioned, it is expected that if US sanctions continue, by the end of the next five years voter turnout will decline by another 10 percent to 20 percent. If the Trump administration wins the US presidential elections in 2020 and has the opportunity to continue the US maximum pressure strategy for another four years, voter turnout will decline no doubt, impacting the legitimacy of the political system and its ultimate survival.