One of the strangest features of contemporary Iranian politics must surely be the reality that despite the concerted and successful effort to narrow the range of candidates allowed to run for various political offices, competition among individuals and groups has not only remained unabated, it has intensified.
I have been closely watching Iranian elections since very early 1990s and have always found them to be colorful and rather intense exercises in elite competition. Moreover, I have found election periods to be important revelatory moments regarding the push and pulls of Iranian politics. But even with this backdrop, the intensity and unpredictable turns this election has taken are still fascinating.
The current election cycle for the 290-seat parliament began with a determination by hard-line principlist forces (principlist is now commonly used to refer to an array of forces that previously called themselves conservative or fundamentalist) close to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not to repeat the same mistake they made in the municipal elections of 2006. In that year, individuals aligned with the president ( who ran under the banner of The Pleasant Scent of Service), rather smug about their man, chose to offer their own slate of candidates, particularly in large cities and ended up with a relatively weak showing in comparison to other principlist forces or even reformists. In the city of Tehran, for instance, only a few individuals (one of whom was Ahmadinejad’s sister) from Pleasant Scent were elected in comparison to four reformists and many more centrist principlists. This combination allowed Mohammad Qalibaf, a principlist but one who is at odds with Ahmadinejad, to continue his job as the mayor of Tehran. More importantly, the relatively poor showing of Ahmadinejad’s forces allowed the reformists and others to interpret (some say spin) the election as a defeat for principlism at least in its Ahmadinejad version.
To avoid this scenario, a two pronged strategy was designed that combined a political process intended to unify the principlists and a highly partisan effort to disqualify not only reformist candidates but also centrist ones. Although it is always hazardous to be definite about Iranian electoral politics, the way it looks at this point neither prong is working very well.
In order to unify the principlists, three major legs of principlism, including Ahmadinejad supporters as well as the old guards of the Islamic Coalition Party, were brought together under the umbrella of the Unified Principlist Front with the intent to offer a unified list of candidates. Well, the elections are less than one month away and everyone is still waiting for this unified list for the city of Tehran and elsewhere (Tehran is important because the leaders of the parliament traditionally come from the Tehran list). The only thing that seems to be clear is that Gholamali Haddad Adel, the current parliament speaker, will head the Tehran list.
Meanwhile, it became gradually clear that some of the major principlist players (specifically Ali Larijani, Mohammad Qalibaf, and Mohsen Rezaie who are increasingly acting as a trio and even signed and publicized a joint letter of condolences for Imad Mughniyeh’s assassination) were dissatisfied with the bargaining that was going over who should be on the Tehran list. Even the attempted intervention of the father figure of Iran’s conservative movement, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, to reach a compromise between Ahmadinejad forces and others came to naught and Larijani ended up deciding to run from the city of Qom. It is not yet clear whether the loose coalition, the Comprehensive Principlist Front, that has been brought together in the name of these three men will also have a list for Tehran but there is no mistake that the rift manifested during the presidential and then municipal elections between Ahmadinejad and Qalibaf has not healed.
Another manifestation of the division is the announcement of another principlist group identifying itself as Progressive Principlist Front. This group is headed by the former minister of intelligence, Ali Fallahian, and reportedly includes his deputy Ruhollah Hosseinian. Both of these men have a checkered history that connects them to the serial killings of dissidents in the 1990s and their possible exclusion from the Unified Principlist Front list may have had something to do with worries about their association with others on the list. Still this newly announced front, which according to Fallahian has at least 80 candidates already signed up, will offer yet another alternative to the Unified Principlist Front’s lists throughout Iran, which because of these defections, are again in danger of being perceived as an Ahmadinejad lists.
The second prong of the strategy by Ahmadinejad forces has also faced resistance and in fact can be considered to have received a pushback. Since 1991, extensive vetting of candidates has been an integral feature of Iranian elections. But vetting has been the work of the conservative Guardian Council. This is despite the fact the Guardian Council is only one of three hurdles over which prospective candidates must jump. The other two hurdles are the Executive Electoral Boards and Supervisory Electoral Boards, both of which operate at the provincial level. The first is appointed by the Interior Ministry and the second by the Guardian Council. In the previous elections, at least the ones since 1997, the percent of disqualifications by the Executive Electoral Boards were low for the obvious reason that these bodies were appointed by reformist controlled Interior Ministry. Even prior to 1997, when the ministry was headed by conservatives and centrists, disqualifications at this level were not deemed overtly partisan. But this time around, the level of disqualifications at this level were comparatively quite high (31%) and highly partisan, including both reformists and centrists candidates, many of which are current deputies of the parliament, past cabinet ministers or high ranking officials (even including a grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini).
The reaction to these disqualifications was loud. Of course the reformists and centrists cried foul. Nothing is new there. This time around, however, there were expressions of concern on the part of some principlists as well. One well-known principlist deputy, Ahmad Tavakoli, went as far as to write a letter to the Guardian Council expressing concern. Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, a source of imitation to some principlists, also voiced concern. Finally, Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson (not the one who ran and was disqualified but the one who runs his estate), gave an interview to a reformist outlet, expressing his dissatisfaction.
The centrist and reformist elders, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammad Khatami, having made their commitment to taking these elections seriously no matter the extent of disqualifications, also began doing what they always do: lobbying at the highest levels of the system. Karroubi, the leader of centrist National Confidence Party, even had a publicized meeting with Ayatollah Jannati, the secretary of the Guardian Council, and lo and behold we now have the rather unusual specter of the Guardian Council reversing some of the disqualifications done at the executive board level (and apparently confirmed at the provincial supervisory board level). According to the Ministry of Interior, the results will not be finalized until February 22 but news reports suggest that number of reversals may be between 350 to 400 (out of the total of 2200 disqualified), enough to make Karroubi declare happiness and at least the leader of one of the three parties belonging to the United Reformist Front to suggest that things are looking better.
To be sure, there is no way the disqualification of many well-known leaders of the reformist movements from Islamic Iran’s Participation Party and Islamic Revolution’s Mojahedin Party will be reversed. Their imputed “crime” is that during their control of the Sixth Parliament they did something illegal by questioning the legitimacy of some of the institutions of the Islamic Republic. Still the re-qualification of many centrist and few reformist candidates is an important pushback at the top. Whether the voters will respond to this pushback and actually end up voting for a more centrist/moderate parliament is yet to be seen. As I mentioned above, the maneuvering on all sides has been so intense that for all practical purposes the Iranian voters have little sense of who the principlist, reformist or centrist candidates will be; the former because of internal bickering and the latter two because of uncertainty about who will be allowed to run.
It is important to note that the pushback has found expression in the discursive terrain as well. One example is worth mentioning because of the substantive issue involved. Controversy erupted when the new head of Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps (IRGC), Aziz Jafari, in a speech to members of basij militia took a stance in favor of principlists and essentially asked the basijis to vote for principlists out of religious obligation, stating very clearly that all branches of the government with the exception of the Judiciary are controlled by principlists and should remain so. The fact that the head of IRGC thinks that the Iranian Judiciary is not controlled by forces that he likes is by itself a very interesting and revealing statement but even more interesting was the immediate response this assertion drew from Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson, Seyyed Hassan Khomeini, who had also complained about extensive disqualifications. He reminded everyone of his grandfather’s most famous injunction against military involvement in politics and effectively said that any insertion of military institutions into politics means the end of Khomeinist revolution.
The immediate response of hard-line principlists was swift. Seyyed Hassan Khomeini became the subject of derision in a principlist Internet site reportedly close to Ahmadinejad. He was accused of corruption, high living, and use of government resources during Khatami’s presidency. The language used against him was deemed so offensive that even Kayhan, the arch-conservative newspaper which is itself the most important bastion of offensive language, had to warn of possible infiltration of the president’s circle of nefarious forces. More significantly, Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of Kayhan, in two consecutive editorials is one day, had to acknowledge that Jafari had at best misspoken and at worst made a mistake. Ahmadinejad administration immediately had to dissociate itself publicly from the Internet site (the site was shut down) and yesterday Jafari “clarified” his position by saying that his words were in effect in support of “principles” of the revolution and that is how his defense of principlism as the ideology of the revolution and not as a political current should be interpreted. Given Jafari’s specific reference to principlists not controlling the Judiciary, this clarification is certainly disingenuous but the fact that he had to backtrack in face of reaction was significant.
These public quarrels also provided the needed window to Iran’s former president Hashemi Rafsanjani who was delivering this week's Friday prayer sermon. Not so subtly he warned about a current that is trying “to create rift between Imam [Khomeini] and the people. He called this current “unnatural” and “directed from outside of the country.”
It is difficult to tell what the impact of all these maneuvers and highly partisan bickering will be on the parliamentary elections. What is evident though is that the attempted move for political dominance by a single bloc, which is rightly or wrongly identified as Ahmadinejad’s camp, since he is the most public and partisan face of it, is being resisted by an “establishment” that for years has been more or less used to a certain balance or plurality in governance among political rivals. The election will reveal the extent to which this resistance will be successful. In this context, it is worth noting that the battle has less to do with ideological (since resistance is also coming from within the principlist camp) or even generational divides (since there are young and old, war veterans and clerics, on all sides) and more about the shape of power distribution in the Islamic Republic.