Editor's note: This story was published on Nov. 22, 2015. Voters in Iran went to the polls on Feb. 26. Check here for the latest news.
LONDON, United Kingdom — For months, the news out of Iran has revolved around the nuclear deal with the West and President Hassan Rouhani's efforts to back it up with reforms at home.
With the deal done, the establishment in Iran is now focusing on two of the most important elections in the history of the Islamic Republic — one for parliament, and the other for the Assembly of Experts, which oversees and elects the supreme leader, a lifetime role. The horse trading and messaging has begun.
Last month, a clique of boisterous hardliners jeered at Rouhani, shouting “death to the hypocrite,” as the president took the stage next to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Hardliners view Rouhani as moving against precepts of the Islamic Revolution with his moderate agenda, and they have at least the tacit support of Khamenei's office.
The scene recalled one from former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tenure when Khamenei broadcasted his sentiments by withdrawing his hand from the puckered mouth of the president on national television.
Such messaging may be too murky to serve as a basis for electoral predictions, but one thing is for sure: Iran’s clerics and lawmakers are jockeying for position.
In 2004, Iran’s reformists were stripped of their parliamentary dominance by institutional levers that can be used by Khamenei to bias Iran’s partly democratic system towards conservative groups he favors. Iran’s reformists were then completely shut out of Iran’s body politic in 2009, due to their rejection of the re-election result for Ahmadinejad and their encouragement of subsequent peaceful protests.
This triggered the arrest and — ongoing — detention of their leaders and their own purging from public life by both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. In a wave of firings and arrests designed to remove “sedition” (code for dissent) from the system as defined by Khamenei, civil servants, judges, military commanders, university lecturers and bankers with reformist affiliations were systematically kicked out.
Fortunes are now changing for some reformists due to the instrumental role their bloc played in securing the 2013 election of centrist Rouhani, who has since furnished them with ministerial jobs and reopened a few newspapers. Back from the dead, a few reformist parties have popped up.
However, the bloc remains neutered as the charge of sedition still hovers over several leading reformists, particularly those on its more progressive edge. The parties that have formed have done so only semi-independently from the government, which is composed of centrists and pragmatists.
The reformists are now on a charm offensive with the Guardian Council (GC), a body empowered to stop, by veto, their candidates from running in any election. Khamenei controls the GC and has made increasing use of it to shift Iran’s politics onto his socially and politically conservative ground.
The conservatives too have a fight on their hands. Their popular support has plummeted, largely due to the role most of them played in getting Ahmadinejad, elected and re-elected, by hook or by crook. Their ratings have also fallen due to their open hostility toward the nuclear deal pursued by Rouhani's government.
Last month in a parliamentary rumpus, one conservative MP threatened to plunge Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization, and Javad Zarif, foreign minister, into the wet cement being planned to fill a reactor under Iran’s decommissioning obligations under the nuclear deal.
Although conservatives enjoy Khamenei's patronage — and thereby the GC, the judiciary and parts of the security services — they have been hemorrhaging support internally and have lost many key conservative veterans.
Examples include current and former parliamentary speakers Ali Larijani and Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, who are now being touted as brokers of a potential centrist coalition with the reformists. Larijani and Nategh-Nouri share a common interest with the reformists to see the hardliners ousted.
Larijani, who is so close to Khamenei that he even heads a parliamentary bloc named Followers of Guardianship, has in recent years been the target of many a hardline egg and has too been subject to chants of "death to the …”, due to his criticism of Ahmadinejad and his support for Rouhani.
It appears that the meaning of "conservative" may even be up for redefintion in this election as yesterday’s conservatives become today’s moderates, leaving only a husk of diehard zealots sustained by institutional support from the judiciary, the security services and the IRIB, Iran’s state broadcaster monopoly.
The only hope for the remaining rump of hardliners in the upcoming election is Ahmadinejad, who is back in politics, at least on paper.
This summer, his former ministers set up a new party called Friends of Efficiency and Development of Islamic Iran, comprised of anti-Rouhani anti-nuclear deal stalwarts such as Fereydun Abbasi and Mostafa Mohammad Najjari.
His efforts could backfire, however, and send even more conservatives into the arms of a putative centrist coalition. Rouhani quipped earlier this year that the establishment of the party was "good omen."
In addition to parliament, February elections are also for the Assembly of Experts.
At 76, Khamenei will likely pass away before the next assembly elections in 2023. February’s election will therefore determine the make-up of the next supreme leader, and thus the course the Islamic Republic for decades to come.
Former centrist President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has thrown in his lot with the reformists after years of having his wings clipped by Khamenei and the GC. Rafsanjani is seeking to fill as many seats in the council with his own allies in an attempt to wrest control, even posthumously, from Khamenei.
Rafsanjani is reportedly building a coalition to dominate the assembly that includes Rouhani and Hassan Khomeini, the eldest male grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic. Family name carries weight in Iran and could give Khomeini a degree of political immunity if he entered the fray of mainstream politics.
Ali Motahari, the son of the assassinated revolutionary leader, is a case in point: he regularly criticizes the system and has even become a lightning rod for Iranian citizens aggrieved at issues like corruption and rising poverty. Khomeini's prospects are best demonstrated by the reaction they have elicited by conservative elements of the system.
On Oct. 27, Javan newspaper, close to hardline elements of the Revolution Guard Corps, called on Khomeini to distance himself from the reformists. Earlier in the year, Ansar-e Hezbollah, a former death squad in the early days of the revolution, threatened Khomeini with violence.
However, one source in Tehran close to Rouhani said that it will be difficult for the reformists to win a critical mass of seats in the assembly.
Although Khamenei's GC may not risk the outcry by vetoing them during the vetting stage, the 88 clerics in the council naturally come under Khamenei's influence through a wider system of clerical patronage.
Furthermore, the election of the leader of the assembly is not democratic and is decided by a later internal poll, providing another opportunity for Khamenei to ensure his nominated successor becomes the next leader — favorites at the moment are Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and Sadeq Larijani, who sits to the right of his brother.