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Source: Foreign Policy

Mar 7, 2024

Iran’s New Wave of Political Conservatives Is Here
In last week’s parliamentary election, the Iranian political spectrum shifted to include a new group of outsiders

By Sina Toossi, a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for International Policy.

On March 1, Iran held elections for its parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the influential body responsible for overseeing and appointing the supreme leader. The Iranian public showed little interest—there was a historically low turnout of 41 percent, with only 25 million out of more than 61 million eligible voters participating—but Iran’s political landscape nevertheless experienced an important shift.

The elections, it’s important to note, were neither free nor fair. They were marked by the disqualification of many prominent figures by the Guardian Council, which vets candidates for their loyalty to the Islamic Republic. Among those barred from running for the Assembly of Experts were moderate former President Hassan Rouhani and former Intelligence Ministry chief Mahmoud Alavi, both current members of the assembly.

The main political organization of reformists and other critics of the system either did not participate or advocated for a boycott. To the extent there was diversity in the elections, it was the product of new competition among Iran’s conservative factions.

There are no formal political parties in Iran, but influential movements, groups, and leaders publish lists of their preferred candidates. In Tehran, for example, the city’s 30 parliamentary seats—the most influential in the country—were contested by a collection of candidates appearing on lists from various conservative factions. (The lone moderate list—called the Voice of the Nation and led by Ali Motahari, a dissenting conservative voice—failed to secure any seats due to the low voter turnout and the relative obscurity of its candidates.)

The showdown between conservatives in the capital city saw the rise of some candidates who were newcomers to electoral politics and did not toe the mainstream conservative line. They challenged the establishment conservative list, known by the acronym SHANA, which was led by Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the speaker of the parliament and a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander with a long political career that includes running for president and serving as Tehran’s mayor.

The nonestablishment conservative lists were predominantly composed of hard-line figures. Unlike the reformists and moderate conservatives, who have shown some willingness to adapt and compromise on certain issues, they seek a rigid and purist version of Islamic law, reject any reforms that might threaten their power or ideology, and are more skeptical or opposed to engagement with Western powers.

For instance, the hard-line winners in Tehran this election were fervent opponents of the 2015 nuclear deal, unlike the current speaker Ghalibaf, who was more supportive and pragmatic about the talks.

The hard-line lists included Amana, led by politician Hamid Rasaee; the United Front, headed by Manouchehr Mottaki, the former foreign minister under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and Morning of Iran, aligned with Ali Akbar Raefipour, a controversial thought leader who has propagated antisemitic conspiracy theories, and Saeed Mohammad, the former head of the IRGC’s engineering arm.

While some of the lists had common candidates, the most establishment one, SHANA, suffered significant losses, and the more hard-line and nonmainstream groups, namely Morning of Iran and Amana, made gains.

The triumvirate of top vote-getters in Tehran comprised of hard-line clerics Mahmoud Nabavian and Hamid Rasaee, who clinched first and third places respectively, and Amirhossein Sabeti, a young conservative activist and news show host who came in second place.

Most notably, the election brought a stunning reversal of fortune for the current parliamentary speaker, Qalibaf. Once the top vote-getter—with 1,265,287 votes in the 2020 parliamentary elections—he experienced a precipitous fall to fourth place this time around, securing only 447,905 votes.

The election results in Tehran reflected a notable shift in the voting behavior of the electorate. Instead of voting uniformly for the list of candidates from a single faction, many voters made their own choices from the different lists. The reformist newspaper Etemad described this as a sign of increasing “political maturity,” saying, “They did not surrender their intellect to anyone else and picked their own mix of candidates from the available options.”

Out of the 14 candidates in Tehran who secured their seats in the first round, seven belonged exclusively to SHANA, while the other seven came from different factions or had multiple endorsements. The most notable among them was Nabavian, who topped the vote count, as he was part of several lists.

The reformist Shargh newspaper analyzed the implications of SHANA’s underperformance, saying, “While all media affiliated with official institutions were behind the SHANA list, organized online networks were in the hands of SHANA’s rivals. This network was essentially formed around the discourse of ‘anti-Qalibaf.’ …

This election was essentially the victory of the Sharyan (the rival coalition) over SHANA, or the victory of online activists over the official media of the conservatives.”

But who are these rising conservatives? The three top vote-getters in Tehran are all members of the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, which is the most fundamentalist political group within the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum. Its politicians have track records of opposing both moderate conservatives and reformists and were the loudest critics of the moderate Rouhani administration.

The top vote-getter in Tehran, Nabavian, is a former parliamentarian known for his hard-line stance on foreign policy, especially his fierce opposition to the nuclear negotiations that resulted in the 2015 nuclear deal. He even claimed in June 2017that Washington had demanded Iran hand over Qassem Suleimani, the Revolutionary Guards general who would be assassinated by a U.S. drone strike in 2020, as a condition for establishing banking relations, and that Iran had agreed to do so.

Nabavian’s claim was swiftly denounced by the foreign ministry spokesperson at the time as “fanciful lies, an insult to the Iranian nation, and delusions that have crossed the boundaries of religion and ethics.” Then-Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif himself threatened to take legal action against him.

The second- and third-place finishers, Amir Hossen Sabeti and Hamid Rasaee, also have a history of clashing with moderate conservatives over their criticism of them—and even facing legal repercussions for doing so. In 2012, Sabeti was sentenced by a Revolutionary Court to a suspended prison sentence for protesting the actions of Ali Larijani, then the moderately conservative speaker of parliament, over university policies.

Rasaee, on the other hand, is a prominent hard-line figure who runs the Nine Dey newspaper, which was shut down several times during the Rouhani era over its content against his administration, and Rasaee himself was disqualified by the Guardian Council for a past parliamentary election.

As the Islamic Republic’s most hard-line factions gain more power, the system as a whole faces an ever-growing crisis of legitimacy. The majority of the electorate boycotted the election, while those who voted, mostly from the government’s loyal base, expressed their discontent with the status quo by either spoiling their ballots or rejecting the main establishment candidates, such as Qalibaf.

One prominent voice that did not participate in this election was that of Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president who still has some clout among a part of society and the government.

He played an important role in mobilizing public turnout in previous elections, even as he himself had long been sidelined from official positions. During the 2022-23 protest movement, he said the “overthrow [of the political system] is neither possible nor desirable” and did not echo the call for a referendum proposed by former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist leader of the 2009 Green Movement.

The Reformist Front, the main political organization of the reformists, also decided to sit out the election after months of deliberation, saying it “cannot take part in an election that is meaningless, noncompetitive, unfair, and ineffective in governing the country.” It is not clear what the reformists’ next step will be. They are reportedly working on a new document that will be released soon, aiming to change both the way the system works and the way the elections are held. The document is said to be partly the work of Khatami’s office and the Reformist Front.

The election also marked the decisive decline of the old conservative establishment. Figures such as Qalibaf, Larijani, and the latter’s younger brother Sadegh Larijani, who lost his seat in the Assembly of Experts election, are marginalized. It is a new era of conservative politics in Iran.

Yet, while Iran’s elections have been important in the past, especially for the presidency, this one is not likely to make a major difference, at least for the parliament. The new parliament is expected to be aligned with the administration of incumbent President Ebrahim Raisi and support its main policies, including on foreign affairs.

However, it’s not unlikely that 84-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei will not live to see the end of the next Assembly of Expert’s eight-year term, which means that the members elected on March 1 could have the responsibility of choosing his successor.

Ultimately, the ascension of fundamentalist factions can further erode prospects for urgently needed reforms. A harbinger of potential discord lies in the widening schism among conservatives on societal issues.

A recent incident serves as a case in point: The Raisi administration sanctioned a concert in Isfahan featuring Ali Ghorbani, a traditional music singer. Yet it was abruptly canceled by local authorities due to the involvement of female musicians. That may be a precursor to an escalating series of conflicts between conservatives within a system that is in dire need of reform.

Sina Toossi is a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for International Policy. Twitter: @SinaToossi

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