Where’s Iran Going?

Conservative Victory in Parliamentary Elections · With the defeat of the reformers and the victory of the conservatives in the parliamentary elections, the challenges facing the country, from sanctions to the coronavirus epidemic, remain daunting. And the regime seems little able to meet them.

Tehran, February 12, 2020. — Election posters and leaflets
Atta Kenare/AFP

Iran’s 21 February parliamentary (Majles) elections, which took place amid massive internal and external challenges to the regime, ended with an all-too predictable result: the conservative camp—the so-called “principlists” (osoul-garâ) consisting of conservatives and ultra-conservatives—emerged victorious, not least as a consequence of the mass disqualification of most reformist and moderate contenders (including 80 sitting MPs) at the hands of the ultraconservative Guardian Council that is in charge of vetting candidates for elections. As a result, the reformists had rejected to endorse any candidates in 22 of the country’s 31 provinces, including the capital of Tehran where 30 seats were up for grabs.

Although these most uncompetitive elections for years signaled the hardliners’ bold willingness to seek the monopolization of power within the Islamic Republic’s institutions, the historic low turn-out has dealt a major blow to the legitimacy of the regime and was reflective of the low level of people’s confidence toward it. As such, the elections’ outcome may complicate the realization of such ambitions for power monopolization, potentially constituting a Pyrrhic victory.

Against this backdrop, various scenarios regarding the domestic distribution of power can be envisaged, especially in view of the presidential elections due in June 2021—from monopolization by hardliners all the way to a reformist comeback for the sake of regime survival. In foreign policy, the conservatives’ increasingly tight grip on all institutions—contrary to conventional assumptions of further hardening the fronts between Iran and the U.S.—might in fact facilitate an arrangement with Washington.

Many candidates, little participation

These elections assembled a few superlatives in any of the so far eleven parliamentary elections held under the Islamic Republic: While a record number of people applied to run (ca. 16,000), the Guardian Council only approved of a record low share (ca. 44%)—in total numbers, three times as many as for the last elections in 2016 were disqualified—, the resulting number of approved candidates was the highest ever. The Guardian Council, an ultra-conservative body whose members are directly and indirectly approved by the Supreme Leader, vet candidates for parliamentary, presidential, and Assembly of Experts elections de facto according to their regime loyalty. Most of those disqualified were reformists, undermining the Council’s allegedly non-partisan claim that most were excluded because of pending financial corruption charges.

Another superlative is the historic low voter turnout that was officially put at 42.6%; yet, in reality—as is the case with other elections in the Islamic Republic—it is believed to be much lower, with some estimating it at half as much. In the previous parliamentary elections of 2016, the official turnout was 61.8%. The hardliners are usually believed to represent only 15% of the population who remain loyal to the system because of ideological persuasion and/or material benefits, while a high turnout has usually come to the benefit of reformists.

The low turnout this time around is thus a major blow to the regime as a whole, but especially the Supreme Leader who had argued that the election results will define the ruling system’s very “prestige.” It came about despite:

➞ an unprecedented campaign led by state media and the Supreme Leader to urge people to vote, portrayed as a national as well as religious duty to protect the nation from its omnipresent enemies,

➞ various coercive elements conventionally deployed by the state to push people to the polling stations (from bussing in military conscripts to hidden fears by various segments of society that not voting will negatively impact their access to state allocations and job prospects), and © the voting period extended by several hours. Hence, the very low turnout is a reflection of a general public mood toward a ruling system largely seen as increasingly illegitimate, incompetent and corrupt—and anathema to the interests of many of its citizens.

The low turnout was rationalized by Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli on accounts that are reflective—except for the case of the coronavirus outbreak, the magnitude of which was only officially announced after the elections—of the prevalent social mood in the country and people’s deep discontent and disillusionment1: The nationwide anti-regime protests of January 2018 and November 2019 and, more recently, the January 2020 shooting-down of a passenger jet killing all 176 on-board, which the authorities had lied about their responsibility for three days.

The Conservative victory

Conservatives won 230 of the 290 parliamentary seats, including all 30 in Tehran (where not a single MP was re-elected), while reformists won around 16 seats. The pro-President Hassan Rouhani Hope Faction, headed by reformist Mohammad-Reza Aref (who in the 2016 parliamentary elections had topped the Tehran election results, but decided not to run this time around) is believed to lose more than 90% of its MPs (with only 7 MPs in the next parliament instead of the current 120), while the entire moderate camp is believed to have won maximum 50 seats. Thus, the parliament will be completely transformed, with less than one fifth of sitting MPs also represented in the next Majles.

In the capital, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, a former Tehran mayor with political ambitions, topped the list with over 1 million voters. In contrast, in 2016 all Tehran MPs got more than 1 million—indicating the collapse of votes cast in the capital city.

The wider conservative camp, composed of various factions, emerged victorious, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as its most powerful institution expected to further gain ground and Ghalibaf—the conservatives’ most successful candidate in these elections—well positioned for higher political offices. With the takeover of the parliament, the IRGC could thus extend its dominance in the military, intelligence, and economic spheres onto the political one, making the military-rule component in the Islamic Republic increasingly pronounced.

The mass disqualifications and the low turnout may signal a miscalculation on the part of the ultraconservatives and their sense of hubris—to a large extent due to the moderate camp’s weakness and failures—to put an end to a rather well-functioning safety net meant to channel public discontent and a mechanism for regime resilience, namely offering the choice—as many Iranians refer to—between a lesser and a larger evil (i.e., the moderates or reformists against the hardliners). However, despite the conservative camp’s victory, its sense of hubris ahead of the elections had allowed for fiercer confrontations within it, which might play out down the road. The conservative camp includes the following main factions (Jebheh—literally a front in the military sense), which both compete and cooperate with each other:

➞ “Velâ’i,” the dominant camp, promotes full allegiance to the Supreme Leader,

➞ “Pâydâri” (officially called the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability or Endurance), a smaller faction loyal to ultraconservative cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi and headed by his protégé Morteza Aghatehrani who acts as secretary general, which in late 2018 had introduced a bill to impeach Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

➞ A “neo-principlist” camp including formation consisting of a younger generation of conservatives loyal to the Islamic Revolution, pursuing an agenda under the banner of welfare, growth and development, and supported by Ghalibaf.

Ghalibaf future president?

The most prominent figure emerging from the elections is Ghalibaf, whose Proud Iran (Irân-e Sarboland) list, uniting many principlists and critics of the Rouhani administration, had fielded 30 candidates. He managed to rank first in Tehran and is thus poised to assume the powerful position of Speaker of Parliament, which he could use to position himself as the next president. In the past, Ghalibaf had failed to gain the presidency several times (2005, 2013, and 2017). He started his career in the security-military establishment, then delving into economic and political spheres—most of which closely connected to the IRGC. During the Iraq—Iran War, he held chief commander positions in several brigades and divisions. After the war, he became Managing-Director of the IRGC’s engineering arm Khatam-ol Anbia (the main economic entity of the Guards when then-President Rafsanjani integrated them in the post-war reconstruction economy), which then developed into an economic empire of its own. He later became the commander of the IRGC air force (1997–2000) appointed by Khamenei, chief of the police (or the Law Enforcement of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or NAJA in Persian acronym, 2000–2005), more recently mayor of Tehran (2005–2017) and currently the Expediency Council’s Economic Commission Deputy. In 2001, he obtained a Ph.D. in Political Geography from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, with a dissertation entitled Analysis of the Local State in Iran, supervised by Professor Mohammad-Reza Hafeznia, one of the founders of the political geography and geopolitics disciplines in Iran.

Coming from a security background, Ghalibaf’s political agenda combines economic populism, technocratic management (he was largely seen in this light during his twelve years as mayor of Tehran) and militaristic nationalism (during the parliamentary campaign, he praised his close friendship with the late IRGC General Qassem Soleimani during the Iraq—Iran War). Given more extremist elements within the conservative camp, he could have good chances of becoming president as a “lesser evil” option.

Facilitating talks with Washington

For Iran’s regional and international friends and foes alike, the historic low turnout, which didn’t escape their attention, made clear the depth of the regime’s legitimacy crisis, while the hardliners’ victory signals the political tendency to be expected.

There is little chance of foreign-policy changes as a result of these elections. Until the next year’s presidential elections, it is likely that we continue to hear a duality of voices from Tehran: a moderate one from the Rouhani administration and a hardline one from other institutions (the IRGC and now the Parliament). In fact, both voices operating in tandem have demonstrated their usefulness for the regime and the Supreme Leader.

Contrary to conventional thinking, the hardliners’ increasing grip on power might actually facilitate talks with the U.S.—which continue to remain indispensable given Iran’s need to get rid of U.S. sanctions for the sake of regime stability. One major reason for such a scenario, which may only play out either after the U.S. or Iranian presidential elections, is that a key impediment to hardliners’ rejection of an opening with the West or negotiations with Washington would lose much prowess. Hardliners’ concern lies is the fact that with an opening to the West, a process which may be co-negotiated by their rival elite moderate forces when, for instance, the president hails from that camp, would endanger or not sufficiently guarantee their politico-economic (safeguarding their economic monopolies while being able to access lost resources by re-energized oil export and engage in more important trade with non-Western powers who have been kept away by U.S. sanctions) and ideological interests. Such concern may also be paranoid, after all the Supreme Leader is supervising and controlling any such process of opening or negotiations, thus acting as a guarantor of his hardline allies’ interest.

No redistributive measures

There might be more bold attempts by the future conservative and ultraconservative parliament to unseat important figures of the moderate administration, but this will unlikely to be supported by the Supreme Leader—given the aforementioned benefits for the system of a duality of elite voices.

Regarding state—society relations, the gulf between the two sides will even widen, given the unlikelihood that in the short-term people’s socio-economic demands will be met, with U.S. sanctions continuing unabated and no major economic policy changes or a redistribution of wealth on the horizon. Thus, the conservative camp’s victory may only be a Pyrrhic one for the Islamic Republic as a whole—and will probably prompt some soul-searching within their strategic circles in how to deal with such widespread public alienation and disenchantment.

Ideally, a unified hardline camp could offer some socio-economic relief to lower strata of the population, by utilizing its unrivalled access to state and semi-state resources (which they largely control), even in the absence of U.S. sanctions relief. The timing of such redistributive measures from their economic monopolies to the benefit of vulnerable sections of society will be important: Doing so before next year’s presidential elections might inadvertently polish the tarnished image of the moderate Rouhani administration, increasing the moderate/reformist camp’s chances for his succession and thus diminishing their own. Thus, it might be more probable that the hardliners’ parliamentary victory will further explicitly deepen the lame-duck performance of the administration—soon entering its last year in office—in order to increase their own political fortunes down the road.

Down the road, the emerging dominant line in Iranian politics could be a kind of right-wing populism, i.e., putting forward a discourse around delivering social justice without actually engaging in a redistribution of wealth, while the ideological role of nationalism will continue to rise relative to Islamism, potentially opening up some space (e.g., on the mandatory veiling) to absorb some public pressure, while repression against protests and civil-society activism will continue unabatedly. In other words, the IRGC acting—or rather pretending to act—as iron-fisted modernizers. Be it as it may, a de facto military dictatorship will also have a hard time satisfying the population’s desire for more social equality and political freedoms. A key variable would be if the current gulf between the lower classes and the middle class can be maintained by any emerging political regime by playing their respective priorities against each other. In the meanwhile, as long as the coronavirus crisis rages in Iran, it is likely to impede the re-eruption of large-scale popular mobilization, especially by the middle class, thus entrenching the feeling of resignation and despair among many.

Reforming reformism

The election results also reinvigorated discussions about the fate of reformism in Iran, most notably whether the moderate and reformist camp’s loss could trigger the ultimate demise of the already crisis-ridden reformists—or in other words, the kiss of death for the reformist/conservative duality within the Islamic Republic’s establishment. Over the years, Iran’s reformists have experienced a significant loss of legitimacy among the erstwhile social bases supporting them, as a result of not only the rivaling hardline camp’s combined opposition, repression and sabotage against them but also, and more importantly, of their own shortcomings to deliver on their political and economic promises. This has led to the belief that rather constituting an agent of change from the top, the reformists have squarely positioned themselves with the establishment and against large sections of the population. In fact, for the first time during the nationwide anti-regime protests since December 2017, they have been equally subjected to popular anger than the conservatives.

Against this backdrop, the future of reformism may involve two scenarios:

➞ a reform of reformism: This would put an end to the reformists’ rejection of street mobilizations and radical demands, while reversing their disregard of the “social question,” i.e. by proposing economic policies that would help alleviate the socio-economic grievances of the lower classes and the middle-class poor;

➞ reformists’ reintegration into the highest echelons of power, facilitated by their hardline rivals, so as to serve as the regime’s safety valve or last straw. This scenario, a function of calculations made for the sake of regime survival threatened by persisting or deepening popular discontent, would see the rehabilitation and reintegration of those within the reformist camp willing to cooperate with regime conservatives to save an Islamic Republic from which both reformists and conservatives profit.

Such a move by conservatives to reintegrate the reformists could be deemed even more necessary if public perception would be such that even a more powerful post-parliamentary election conservative camp had failed to address people’s grievances. In fact, the bold mass disqualification of their candidates led to disunity among the reformist camp, from some boycotting the elections to others participating in them (e.g., former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, whose public activities since the 2009 Green Movement have been heavily restricted by regime hardliners but who was shown casting a ballot at these crucial elections), potentially a signal of some among the reformists willing to forge a coalition with the conservative camp, or at least with those closest to the moderates.

1Which I had highlighted elsewhere in the run-up to the elections.