The ageing cleric who could decide Iran’s elections

Friday 11/12/2015
A 2008 file picture shows Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri (C) next to fomer Iranian president Mohammad Khatami (R).

London - Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, a 71-year-old conservative cleric with a solid but lacklustre track record, might seem an unlikely fit for a pivotal role in the February elections for Iran’s parliament and Assembly of Experts (Majles-e Kho­bregan), the body that chooses the supreme leader.
Nategh-Nouri was trounced in the 1997 presidential election by the reformist Mohammad Khatami and, in 2005, his efforts to persuade conservative candidates to unite be­hind a single figure failed miserably.
His request to Mahmoud Ah­madinejad to stand down because he had least chance of winning was trumped by Ahmadinejad’s later victory. Relations between the two have been bitter ever since. Nategh- Nouri has kept a low profile as an aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Nonetheless, Tehran talk has Nategh-Nouri — as candidate or organiser — helping bring fellow principle-ists into a broad electoral coalition that would stretch from parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and him, through “pragmatic” con­servatives such as President Has­san Rohani and ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Khatami and other reformists.
There is frequent mention of a “triangle” of Khatami, Rafsanjani and Hossein Khomeini, grandson of the 1979 revolution’s leader, espe­cially as a focus for the Khobregan election. With the parliamentary election, the clear divide is over Ju­ly’s nuclear agreement with world powers and the related question of support — or otherwise — for Roha­ni’s government. Hence “principle-ists” such as Nategh-Nouri and Lari­jani line up alongside Khatami and Rafsanjani.
That said, lists in Iranian elections are fluid. Candidates are often on more than one list and the national focus present in Tehran weakens elsewhere as regional and local fac­tors grow in importance. Even if Nategh-Nouri does support a broad pro-Rohani coalition, he could back another list drawn up by the con­servative Association of Combatant Clerics.
Iranian politics is unusual in com­bining rampant factionalising with a lack of effective political parties. Suspicion of parties goes back to the Islamic revolution, when revolu­tionaries feared parties undermined “unity” and weakened respect for clerics.
During the 1980s, factions formed mainly over economic policy, with the left supporting greater state in­volvement to create a more equal society and the right supporting “freedom” for private enterprise and the influential bazaar mer­chants.
In general, the left also called for greater social freedoms and spread­ing the revolution abroad, while those on the right were socially con­servative and favoured pragmatic foreign policies less likely to disrupt trade.
There were many figures who fit neither camp, most obviously Rafsanjani who wanted pragmatic foreign policy, greater social freedom and — once the Iraq war finished — a more “liberal” economy. By the 1990s, the factions realigned as most on the left moved away from command economics, moderated their opposition to the West and put greater emphasis on social and political freedoms.
Back in the 1980s, Nategh-Nouri was part of what was dubbed the “traditional” right in Factional Politics in Post-Khomeini Iran, a deeply researched book published in 2002 by Mehdi Moslem, a bril­liant Iraq-born Iranian scholar who succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2004.
Moslem suggested Nategh-Nouri may have once been a member of Hojjatieh, a pro-business conserva­tive society among clerics and ba­zaars who believed no government could be truly Islamic before the 12th Shia Imam returned as the Mah­di. After the revolution, Khomeini strongly criticised the group, which dissolved and left many ex-mem­bers to become staunch supporters of clerical rule.
Nategh-Nouri held the classic beliefs of the traditional right. He urged young people to resist West­ern cultural influence through stud­ying the Quran and stressed a pref­erence for the chador over lighter veiling. When Nategh-Nouri ran for president in 1997, assurances were conveyed to the British (and so pre­sumably the United States) that he would be flexible in foreign policy.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nategh-Nouri led the rightist fac­tion in parliament, working closely with fellow-parliamentarian Roha­ni, and when the right won the 1996 parliamentary election, he became speaker with Rohani as deputy. Af­ter Khatami became president in 1997, Nategh-Nouri opposed his cul­tural policies but this did not mean he opposed all aspects of his foreign policy.
Hence while Iranian factional politics under Khatami realigned into “reformists”’ versus “conserva­tives” over social and political free­doms, Nategh-Nouri’s ally Rohani led nuclear negotiations with the European Union in 2003-05.
It is too early to say whether, af­ter the July 14th nuclear agreement, another major political realignment is beginning — or what effect this might have on the parliamentary election, and indeed on the Kho­bregan election and therefore on who succeeds Khamenei as leader.
But at least in the short term, here is the shape of things: Aside from fundamentalists who oppose the nuclear agreement and green move­ment reformists who are excluded from politics, there is a broad con­sensus behind Rohani favouring a pragmatic foreign policy (including implementing the nuclear agree­ment), encouraging the private sec­tor and allowing cautious relaxation of social and cultural policy. Nategh- Nouri has good reason to sign up.