Iran polls shape post-Khamenei era
London - As the dust settles on February’s elections for Iran’s parliament and the influential Assembly of Experts, The Arab Weekly talked to analysts who before the poll highlighted what turned out to be important issues.
Farideh Farhi predicted the manner of the election would shape the succession to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran’s supreme leader and Saeid Glokar suggested conservatives would poll better in the countryside than in Tehran.
The new parliament is likely to be more supportive of the July 2015, nuclear agreement with world powers and the government of President Hassan Rohani, whereas the election for the Experts Assembly brought the defeat in Tehran of two prominent clerics described as hard-line — Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, chairman of the outgoing assembly, and the colourful Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.
“The election showed that a good part of Iran’s population agreed with the direction Rohani has taken the country and… felt the need to come out and vote,” said Farhi, of the University of Hawaii. “This gives Rohani more ammunition to pursue his policies. He now has a strengthened argument in pursuing policies in the face of detractors and sceptics, which at times have included Ayatollah Khamenei.”
But Farhi does not see any tension between Khamenei and Rohani resulting in the conflict that flared between the leader and previous presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohammad Khatami.
“Differences between them, reflected in a divided elite and public, have to be negotiated in a constantly changing process,” she said. “These elections stabilise the country through institutionalising a political process that eases elite rotation.
“In a region wracked by instability, violence and succession crises, this is the most important asset the Islamic Republic has developed, which underwrites its increasing influence in the region.”
Glokar, senior fellow at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs and lecturer at Northwestern University, said his monitoring of social media since the election, focused on members of the Basij militia linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, suggests conservatives accept they suffered a setback in February.
“Some argue there was a failure of strategy,” he said. “Others say it was a defeat for a new, middle-class lifestyle. The majority I follow accept there was defeat to Rohani and his administration but that this is not the end of the road. They… say we need to go away, reassess and come back with a new strategy.”
There is already discussion of the 2017 presidential election, said Glokar, with some conservatives suggesting Ahmadinejad should run. He was ineligible in 2013, when Rohani won, as the constitution allows only two consecutive terms.
“The social media discussion among more conservative students, in Islamic societies and the Basij, is that Ahmadinejad can defeat Rohani,” said Glokar. “Ahmadinejad remains popular with the lower class, the Basij, these people. Ahmadinejad knows this and believes they’ll come back to him for the next election.”
Could Khamenei accept this, given the problems Ahmadinejad caused him last time? Wouldn’t he prefer Rohani be re-elected?
“This would be a difficult decision,” said Glokar. “Ahmadinejad as president would be a challenge, but without Ahmadinejad, the hardliners perhaps don’t have someone with charisma who can mobilise people.
“Rohani is clever, obedient to Khamenei. But it’s not simple: Khamenei has a social base he has to satisfy. If the social base favours Ahmadinejad, Khamenei has to take this seriously.”
The election to the Experts Assembly was especially important due to the possibility it may, in its 8-year, term choose a successor to Khamenei. Glokar argues the results were no straightforward triumph for Rohani and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who were both returned to the assembly from Tehran.
“The concepts of ‘moderates’, ‘centrists’, ‘hardliners’ are blurry with Khobregan [the Experts Assembly] and we can’t categorise these individuals in such a way,” he said.
Glokar divides the 88 clerics in the assembly according to their closeness to the traditional clergy in Qom (such as Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi), the state bureaucracy (Rohani, Rafsanjani and others) or the military-security apparatus (Sadegh Larijani and Mohammad Mehdi Mirbagheri among them).
“The Assembly of Experts somehow reflects wider society — the bureaucracy, the clerical networks, the security,” he said. “So the fight reflects what’s going on outside the Assembly.”
Another factor was highlighted by Farhi in December: that Khamenei can shape the succession with his “legacy… shaped more by the way he leaves than by what he’s done as leader”.
Days after the election, the death of Ayatollah Abbas Vaez-Tabasi, 80-year-old chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, the body managing the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad gave Khamenei the chance to appoint a close ally, Ebrahim Raeisi, as successor to keep a close watch on Rafsanjani.
So Raeisi, already a member of the Experts Assembly, will oversee a foundation whose turnover — in endowments, property and companies — is many billions of dollars annually. “All of these events have an impact,” said Glokar. “So we have to see.”