Iran's Conservatives: The Headstrong New Bloc

Shaul Bakhash

       This is the fourth in a series on parliamentary elections due in March 2012:

       In preparation for the 2012 parliamentary election, Iran's diverse conservative parties are already forging a strategy to marginalize or even exclude their principal opponents, especially reformists and supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The conservative bloc has begun by trying to craft a common platform and candidates list for the 2012 parliamentary (Majles) election.

       The conservative camp is going after the reformists because they represent a vision of a more democratic and liberal Iran that is anathema to them. Conservatives are also going after the followers of Ahmadinejad, who once enjoyed strong support in the Majles, because the president has   alienated conservatives across the political spectrum. He has been especially dismissive and even contemptuous of the conservative-dominated legislature and its prerogatives. And to the discomfort of the traditional establishment, he has used populism to appeal to villagers and the mass public above the heads of established institutions.

       Besides political tensions, the unorthodox religious views of men close to Ahmadinejad have alienated the clerical community that is dominated by conservatives. The power accumulated by presidential chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, and the Rasputin like influence he reportedly exercises over the president, has also alarmed conservatives. Ahmadinejad's falling-out with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in April brought these long-simmering resentments against the president into the open.

        In the conservative lexicon, Ahmadinejad and his inner circle have joined the reformists as a lethal threat to conservative values.

        In their drive for unity, almost all the conservative politicians now label themselves usulgara, or "principlists." Prodded by leading conservatives, such as Assembly of Experts President Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani, principlists from several conservative organizations have created a council of 15--also known as the council of the 7 plus 8--to draw up a common platform and list of candidates for parliament.

       In a letter to Mahdavi-Kani in August, over 190 members of parliament urged unity and common purpose rather than an election scramble for seats among the principlists. Conservative newspapers like Kayhan have not only pushed the unity message but warned that the coming elections will be fateful for the triumph of conservative cause against the "enemies" of the Islamic revolution.

       The council of 15 has two committees. The primary committee of seven is composed of two representatives from each of the country’s two politically most important clerical organizations:

  • The Association of the Combatant Clerics of Tehran (Jame'eh-ye Ruhaniyyat-e Mobarez) is headed by Mahdavi-Kani.
  • The Association of the Seminary Teachers of Qom (Jame'eh-ye Modarresin-e Howzeh-ye Elmi-ye Qum) is headed by Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi.

        The committee of seven includes three top conservatives close to Iran's supreme leader.

  • Ali Velayati is Khamenei's advisor on foreign affairs.
  • Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, a former speaker of parliament, is related to Khamenei by marriage.
  • Habibollah Asghar-Owladi is head of a political party with strong ties to bazaar merchants.

       The second committee of eight consists of:

  • Six representatives of the principal conservative parties and movements in the Majles
  • The current speaker of parliament Ali Larijani
  • And the former Revolutionary Guards commander and Tehran Mayor Baqer Qalibaf.

       The latter two are close to Khamenei. In fact, the Leader appears to have initiated the push for conservative unity. The "eight" will serve as the executive arm of the council, drawing up the common platform and party list. The "seven" will supervise and direct the operation and have final say on the decisions of the eight. 

        A declaration issued last year by the Association of Combatant Clerics and the Association of the Seminary Teachers of Qom serves as the principlist "manifesto." But this document has little to say on bread-and-butter issues such as job creation, economic development or even foreign policy. It focuses instead on broad conservative principles: loyalty to Islam and the revolution, obedience to the supreme leader and devotion to the principle of velayat-e faqih, or rule by an Islamic jurist.

       This set of principles implicitly endorses the status quo and the current power structure. It is also a response to the reformist parties' emphasis on change: free elections, freedom of the press and assembly and individual rights, and, implicitly, curbs on the almost unlimited power of the supreme leader, and limits on the authority of the Guardian Council to disqualify candidates for elective office.

       The conservatives seem driven principally by one aim: to consolidate their hold on power and control of state institutions. Increasingly, they treat their political rivals as if they were no longer legitimate political players. Almost invariably, they speak of the reformist parties as the "seditious current," a reference to the widespread protests after Ahmadinejad's contested reelection in 2009. They also speak of Ahmadinejad's circle as the "deviationist current," a reference to the supposedly unorthodox political and religious views of the president's inner circle.

       Both terms resonate with rich, negative connotations in Islamic history. Kayhan has taken to referring the Green Movement reformists as foreign agents working for the United States and Israel. It often lumps the Ahmadinejad "deviationists" with the reformist "seditionists."  Hardline conservatives count on the Guardian Council to disqualify candidates of these movements, or most of them, to run for Majles seats.

       One striking characteristic of the emerging conservative front is the prominent role of the clerical community, one of many indications that the ruling group is once again relying on religion to lend them legitimacy and provide the glue to hold society together. The principlist "manifesto" is the work of clerical organizations.

       Mahdavi-Kani, a key figure in the drive for conservative unity, is a cleric. Four of the 15 seats on the council have been assigned to representatives of two clerical parties. Other clerics--such as the ultra-conservative Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi and ultra-conservative Guardian Council chairman Ahmad Jannati--have endorsed the unity campaign and specific conservative political organizations.

       The impact is already spilling over into society. Thirty years after the revolution, there is renewed talk of separating men and women in university classrooms.

       But cracks are also already showing in the principlist camp. The principlists include dozens of small cliques and political organizations each centered around a limited number of politicians, activists, clerics and members of parliament and state institutions. If these groups do not agree on a common list and how to divide up parliamentary seats, they may have to compete with each other for votes.

       The conservatism of these groups varies too. They fall generally into four categories:

  • Traditional conservatives may stand firm on social issues, such as Islamic dress for women and bans on gender mixing. But they are more open to possible reconciliation with centrist reformers, albeit with many caveats.
  • Another group of new conservatives cares less about social issues, but they are closely aligned with the military-security nexus whose influence has grown markedly in recent years.
  • A third conservative wing is closely allied to the bazaar merchants, importers and shopkeepers.
  • A fourth branch, championed by former Ahmadinejad supporters, is populist in temperament and intent.

      Despite their call for unity, the number of principlist political alliances continues to proliferate. Two new conservative groups announced their formation in mid-August; each represents a clutch of politicians, clerics and smaller political associations.

      The Steadfast (or Paydari) Front is the more weighty of these two formations. It brings together influential principlists and enjoys the support of the ultra-conservative cleric, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi. Negotiations to add representatives of this group to the Council of 15 remained stalled as of the end of August. The front considers itself the representative of "true" conservatism, rejects conservative moderates such as Larijani, and sees no reason why he should sit on the council and play a key role in principlist deliberations.

      There is a more serious scramble over allocation of places on the common electoral list. Each faction wants to maximize its share of seats in the coming election. The letter from the 190-plus members of parliament to Mahdavi-Kani calling for unity included an implicit denunciation of this rivalry over seats. In a recent opinion piece, hardline Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari called on all members of the committee of 15 to forgo running for parliament-a suggestion promptly rejected by Velayati. This ostensible plea for selflessness on the part of committee members is also a neat way of excluding some individuals not to Shariatmadari's liking.

       Principlists also do not agree on how to deal with the reformist opposition and what is emerging for them as the "Ahmadinejad problem." Conservative politicians and analysts in Iran implicitly draw a distinction between the Green Movement reformists, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and the more moderate reformists represented by former President Mohammad Khatami. Mousavi and Karroubi, under house arrest and silenced for months, are regarded as having crossed a red line into out-and-out opposition, while some conservatives imply that the moderate reformers, like Khatami, might still redeem themselves.

      Hardline conservatives, like Kayhan's Shariatmadari, argue for excluding reformists of all stripes from the elections-not only the men directly associated with Musavi and Karrubi, but also those who expressed the slightest sympathy for the Green Movement or the mass protests in 2009. Such exclusion would apply to Khatami and even to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is trying to make a political comeback as an elder statesman who can heal the nation's wounds and bring all political factions together. A conservative preacher has condemned any principlist attempt to reach out to Rafsanjani, describing such efforts as "seeking refuge in a sinking ship."

      Centrist conservatives would allow moderate reformists to run, but only if they pass a kind of loyalty test by distancing themselves from the Green Movement, apologizing for the past error of sympathizing with it, and making clear their devotion to Iran's present governing system and its supreme leader. The loyalty test ends up being exclusionary as well. Ali Motahari, a liberal conservative, has said that Mousavi and Karroubi aside, there is no reason why the Guardian Council should exclude any other reformists from the elections, and Majles Deputy Speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar has taken a similar line. But these are lone voices on the conservative side. More typical is the view expressed by Velayati, who sees no reason why anyone should be allowed to run who "lacks faith" in the Islamic Republic or has acted against it-shorthand  for the reformists and the "deviationists" of the Ahmadinejad camp.

       The regime, particularly the supreme leader, attaches considerable importance to a high election turnout. But a competitive election that draws voters to the polls would require a reasonable number of reformists to be allowed to run. Some leaders of the conservative camp, including the supreme leader, may favor such a strategy. But Khamenei has also implicitly imposed his own 'loyalty test' on opposition leaders by calling on them to declare whether they support the system or not.

      The supreme leader's test has already met resistance from key quarters. Khatami said he will participate in the elections only if they are free and if political prisoners are freed. Musavi's spokesman has called for free elections, freedom of press and assembly, an end to the practice of disqualifying reformist candidates and release of Musavi and Karrubi from house arrest. These conditions are unlikely to be met. So reformist participation in the elections is in doubt due to reservations among both reformists and the principlists.

      The Ahmadinejad faction presents the conservatives with a different set of problems. Since Ahmadinejad (sort of) patched up his disagreement with the supreme leader, the focus of venomous criticism has shifted from the president to his lieutenants who are tied to the so-called "deviationist" current. But Ahmadinejad has not fallen into line.  He has specifically refused to abandon controversial chief-of-staff Mashaie.

       The president instead crafted his own strategy. In a recent public speech, he denounced illegal smuggling through the unofficial ports run by the Revolutionary Guards, reportedly a longstanding practice that had never been publicly aired. To deal with the housing shortage and high rents, he also proposed giving each family 1,000 square meters of government-owned land and a building permit for a three-story house-a totally impractical idea which, much to the discomfort of his opponents, resonated with the urban and rural poor.

       One of his former aides recently alleged in an article that black, the preferred color among conservatives for the full-body chador, or covering for women, came to Iran from Europe only in the late 19th century and was the color of choice among Europe's corrupt, high-living upper classes. The resulting uproar in the conservative camp was no doubt motivated in part by the belief that Ahmadinejad was using surrogates to appeal to women and the middle class, still chafing under the Islamic dress code and other social restrictions.

       Conservatives also fear that Ahmadinejad will use the powers of his office, government resources and the interior ministry's responsibility for administering the elections to swing the vote in the upcoming Majles elections to candidates of his own choosing. Conservative members of parliament and the conservative press speak darkly of extensive changes Ahmadinejad is making in interior ministry personnel and provincial administration on the eve of the elections and the use of funds at the government's disposal for electoral purposes. Ironically, it is now conservatives rather than the reformists who are warning against government interference in the elections. Ayatollah Jannati, once an ardent Ahmadnejad supporter, recently accused the "deviationist current" of wishing to seize control of the Majles through "misuse of office and official positions and access to vast funds secured through the illicit use of power."  

       The hostility felt towards the Ahmadinejad among conservatives has now reached the point that he was booed when he appeared before the Majles recently. (Khamenei subsequently took Majles leaders to task for allowing a sitting president to be publicly insulted). And his representatives are notably absent from the committee of 15 and other conservative organizations coming together for the parliamentary elections.

       Yet the Ahmadinejad party could split the conservative vote, should his supporters choose to contest the elections independent of the principlist bloc. The decision about who will be allowed to run in the forthcoming election, scheduled for March, will ultimately be made by the Guardian Council and in behind-the-scenes consultation with Khamenei and other powerful insiders. But the input of the broader principlist movement also matters. On this issue, as on how to split the electoral spoils, the conservatives remain divided.

Shaul Bakhash is the Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.

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