Brimming with Deceit, Iran Finds its Legitimacy on the Line
The Islamic Republic of Iran is being pushed to the brink. Over the past few months, the government of Iran has faced a stream of critical developments testing the viability and legitimacy of the regime. And crucially, the Islamic Republic’s response to each of these challenges has been essentially lacking and impetuously deceptive.
When Iranian citizens poured into the streets last November protesting a new tax on fuel prices, the Iranian government responded by massacring unarmed protestors, with death toll estimates placed at a horrifying 1,500 people. However, the Islamic Republic has refused to release an official count, claiming, “only a few people have been killed.”
A few months later, amid the fallout following the U.S. military’s assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard shot down a Ukraine International Airlines passenger plane, killing all 176 onboard. Nonetheless, it would take no less than three days of outright denials and elaborate excuses before the Revolutionary Guard would accept blame.
And following the 2020 legislative elections on February 21, the Iranian Conservatives camp swept an overwhelming majority—over 90%—of seats. Their landslide victory, however, only took place after more than 50% of total candidates and almost 30% of incumbents (mostly reformist candidates) would be forcibly disqualified from running.
Additionally, as the chaos of COVID-19 unfolds across the globe, Iran is unquestionably facing one of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic. With the official toll for Iran rocketing past 20,000 cases and 1,500 deaths, many top Iranian officials, including two vice presidents and 23 members of parliament, are included in these counts. In the midst of this global outbreak, the Iranian government has faced a barrage of accusations, by both foreign and domestic authorities, of covering up the country’s true infection count—with some proposed estimates of COVID-19 infections reaching the millions.
With these developments, there has been a crucial commonality in each of the responses of the Islamic Republic of Iran; the government of Iran was either dishonest or was at least perceived as dishonest by most. Even in those situations in which Iranian officials may have been telling the truth, such as with the ongoing coronavirus crisis, few have taken Iran’s word on the situation without a grain of salt.
In actuality, the irrevocable repercussions that have resulted from Iran’s propensity to veil the truth pose a greater challenge than any of these previous or ongoing challenges—in doing so, the Islamic Republic of Iran has lost its credibility, and consequently, its legitimacy.
Central to any governmental institution’s legitimacy and claims to authority is the presence of a popular trust that the institution can fall back on. In other words, in order to wield influence and retain the right to do so, any given government must possess the trust of the people, so that the consent of the governed and a “social contract” can be appropriately established and rooted. Iran has all but lost this trust and the legitimacy that comes with it. As people both in Iran and abroad witness the Iranian regime conceal truth after truth, the Islamic Republic’s authority only continues to be dealt blow after blow.
This loss in popular trust has already been demonstrated in several instances. In this year’s legislative elections, turnout rates reached their lowest in the entire history of the Islamic Republic, indicating widespread public frustration and mistrust in the system. And in the weeks following the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane this January, thousands on the streets united in calls for “Death to the dictator,” and pivotally, “Death to the liars.”
The situation the government of Iran now finds itself in is nothing short of a fully-functioning vicious cycle. As the Islamic Republic’s authority has continued to deteriorate, it has only found itself more vulnerable to further challenges to stability, whether it be protests, international confrontations, or any other developments reflecting those in the past few months. And when faced with such a threat, Iran’s choice to resort to fabrications only reduces its legitimacy further, rendering it even more prone to future challenges to the regime’s stability.
In short, the Islamic Republic of Iran has found itself on a slippery slope of its own making, accelerating further down the decline of its authority as it continues to lose popular trust.
However, the issue that Iran faces does not necessarily concern the structure, ideology, policies, or objectives of the Islamic Republic. Instead, it wholly concerns the dishonest execution of their ideals.
This current downturn in legitimacy and public trust is not a long-standing or entrenched theme. The Islamic Republic until very recently has seen significant public support and trust from its citizens; following the 1979 Revolution, a public referendum saw overwhelming, near-universal, popular support for the emergent regime. And until the 2020 election, which brought with it embarrassingly low turnout rates, the Iranian government has consistently been able to point to extremely high election turnouts as an indication of public support and engagement with the Islamic Republic.
Although this crisis of legitimacy the government of Iran currently faces may not be an entrenched or ideological one, it still may prove to be an existential one.
Iran has the potential, ability, and duty to rectify its wrongdoings and regain public support, but quashing challenges by enshrouding the truth is not the way to do so. If the Islamic Republic is to become aware of the crisis it finds itself in and in turn, lay down its impetuous tendencies and act in a way to preserve itself and protect its people, it may very well come to find that honesty is, in fact, the best policy.