Hardliners poised to hold sway in next Iranian parliament

"Reformist" and "pragmatist" supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rohani have been systematically excluded.
Friday 14/02/2020
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) delivers a speech during a rally to commemorate the 41st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. (Reuters)
Internal struggles. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) delivers a speech during a rally to commemorate the 41st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. (Reuters)

Iran’s Islamic Republic turned 41 on February 11 and on February 21 Iranians are to elect the republic’s 11th parliament. The election comes as Iran faces unprecedented US economic sanctions and as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is, at 80, preparing his legacy and planning a smooth succession.

The watchdog Guardian Council has been stringent in vetting parliamentary candidates, deeming around one-third of current deputies unfit for continuing in office. Among well-known figures axed is Ali Motahari, 62, a Tehran representative since 2008 and son of the late Morteza Motahari, a close collaborator of the 1979 leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

"Reformists" and "pragmatist" supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rohani have been systematically excluded, ensuring the new 290-member parliament will be dominated by “principlists” who eschew Rohani’s strategy of economic liberalisation and opening to the international economic system.

“Ayatollah Khamenei’s first priority is a smooth succession,” said Saeid Golkar, assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee and an expert on Iran’s conservatives.

“While the choice of a new leader will be made by the 88 members of the Assembly of Experts, there might well be different views within the political elite, including the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard [Corps] and clerics.

“So there is a danger that a drawn-out process might precipitate public unrest. Hence, I believe Khamenei wants to have all state institutions, including parliament, following a similar way of thinking.”

Khamenei offered what amounted to an outline of his legacy a year ago, on the revolution’s 40th anniversary, with a statement titled “The Second Phase of the Revolution.” In this, he called on young people to lead Iran closer to the Islamic ideal.

“Within Islam, 40 is often seen as the age at which a person reaches maturity, as it was with the Prophet,” said Golkar, referring to the Prophet Mohammad beginning his divine mission aged 40.

“In this important document, Ayatollah Khamenei set out the goal of transferring leadership to a new, younger generation. We have seen this happening within the judiciary under Ebrahim Raeisi [judicial chief since March 2019] and we are now going to see it with the new parliament.”

Conservative candidates are blaming the Rohani government for economic woes and exhorting resistance to the United States. Their motivation was enhanced by the January 3 killing of Major-General Qassem Soleimani in a US missile strike in Baghdad.

Rohani faced hostile chants when speaking at a rally February 11 in Azidi Square in Tehran, marking the revolutionary anniversary.

Several conservative lists have been prepared, one by allies of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Another centres on former Tehran Mayor and twice presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who has a network of young supporters, particularly from his home province of Razavi Khorasan.

If hardliners are confident, Iran’s reformists face a long haul. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, vice-president under Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), asked colleagues to concentrate on building up organisations in civil society.

With limited competition, the parliamentary election of February 21 is likely to see a lower turnout than the 62% of 2016 and 64% of 2012. One comparison might be 51% in the 2004 election when many reformist deputies were excluded. One poll suggested turnout in Tehran could be just 21%.

Participation is important to Iran’s leadership as evidence of citizens’ commitment to the system. The state broadcasting company established a 24-hour radio station devoted to election coverage and targeting first-time voters.

Golkar said he expected a 55-60% turnout in small towns and rural areas with a lower turnout in larger conurbations: “Away from the cities, there are more local factors -- rivalries between tribes, families and so on -- and these encourage voting. The leadership will see an overall turnout of 50-55% as a success.”

Khamenei may still authorise some reformist candidates to stimulate interest but the bulk of exclusions will stand and the Guardian Council is widely expected to engineer a field of younger principlists in next year’s presidential election.

These moves towards a more unified political elite increase the challenges facing any renewed diplomacy aimed at easing tensions centred on Iran, including over its expanding nuclear programme. Whether or not US President Donald Trump fails to secure re-election in November, Iran will have a more hard-line, defiant parliament.

Some deputies already call for Iran to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which the International Atomic Energy Agency inspects its nuclear facilities. Even if a Democrat wins in the US presidential election in November, Iran may set fresh conditions for returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement, abandoned by Trump in 2018, or demand greater concessions for agreeing on a successor treaty.

However, domestically, being clearly in charge will leave the principlists without domestic fall guys at a time when the public mood is volatile in the face of 39% inflation and high youth unemployment. Time will tell if their victory is pyrrhic.