The ageing cleric who could decide Iran’s elections
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.