Iran Election Watch 2013: A look at the main political currents

Between January and June of 2013, IranPolitik will begin a new series of articles under the label Iran Election Watch 2013 to cover the dynamics and implications of the upcoming Iranian presidential election. During this six month period IranPolitik will cover a wide variety of election-related subjects. These include the Islamic Republic’s system for vetting and filtering presidential candidates, the nature of political electioneering and campaigning in Iran, some of the key domestic and foreign policy issues at stake, the relevant political currents, and the candidates. Below we have given brief overviews of the main political currents that could play some role in the election. Each current will be analyzed in greater depth in the coming months.

The Islamic Republic’s main political currents

Groupings in Iranian politics are notoriously difficult to ascertain and categorize for a variety of reasons, including the lack of a strong party system, the focus on powerful personalities, the opacity of the political system as a result of the authoritarian nature of the regime, and the shifting nature of allegiances. The overview provided below is tentative and the election may reveal changes in these political dynamics. Old currents may die out, new currents may reveal themselves, and existing currents may form temporary or permanent alliances in their maneuver for power.

Furthermore, as we will show in the coming months, the lines between political currents can sometimes be blurry, and there is limited consensus on the currents’ key characteristics and even their names. As such, some level of interpretation is required, and the list below may see subtle or dramatic changes by the end of the election in six months time. Finally, it should be noted that the politicians named listed below in association with each current are simply key personalities and not necessarily candidates for the election. Presidential candidates will be dealt with separately in the future.

Neo-Principalists

The most potentially relevant political current in the upcoming election is likely to be the hardliners known as the Neo-Principalists. One of the central principles of this current is velayat madari, or absolute obedience to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Alongside the supreme leader, their main backer is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), one of the most powerful security, political, and economic complexes in Iran today.

The Neo-Principalists are opposed to every other current in Iran’s political establishment to varying degrees, particularly the Traditional Principalists, Centrists, Reformists, and Green Movement. This current originally backed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from his election as president in 2005 until his re-election in 2009. They were central to his first term as president in terms of both policy and providing key cabinet members, but broke with the president after 2009 for reasons explored below.

Their key personalities include ex-parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel (who is also well regarded by Traditional Principalists), Supreme National Security Council secretary and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, ex-interior minister Sadegh Mahsouli, Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution (PFIR) parliamentary faction secretary Morteza Agha-Tehrani, and parliamentary representative Ruhollah Hosseinian. Their main spiritual leader is the controversial cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi. In the Iranian parliament they are represented by the most unified and second largest faction, the PFIR.

Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current

Once virtually indistinguishable from the Neo-Principalist faction to outside observers, this current came to light after the 2009 presidential election with rise of its most notable figure (aside from president Ahmadinejad), Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Mashaei has been labelled “the octopus” because of his appointment to multiple senior posts by the president, including as the latter’s chief of staff. This current has played a much larger role in Ahmadinejad’s second term and has expressed unorthodox points of view on domestic and foreign policy which has led Neo-Principalists and the IRGC to label them the “deviant current”. Highly secretive, it is difficult to discern their main political, economic, and religious backers.

This current, which was very active during the 2012 parliamentary election under independent candidates but has little to show for its efforts, has taken controversial and unorthodox positions on a number of social, religious, and foreign policy issues. Ahmadinejad angered some conservatives by questioning the need for the police to crack-down on young people for the way they dress, saying that the country has larger problems. Mashaei has said that the age of political Islam as it exists today is over, and that the time is ripe for an Iranian School of Islam. The pair have also highlighted Iran’s pre-Islamic history and attempted to reconcile Iranian nationalism with Shiite political Islam. Their discourse on the return of the Mahdi and the end times has also raised suspicions among hardliners who see it as undermining the Islamic Republic’s main political theory, the velayat-e faghih, which places the supreme leader as the representative of the Mahdi on earth. The Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current’s claims of a direct connection with the Mahdi threatens to undermine the power of the supreme leader. Finally, although Ahmadinejad is known as anti-Israel and anti-United States figure outside of Iran, his main political ally Mashaei has said that Iranians have no problem with the people of Israel (a controversial stance inside Iran) and Ahmadinejad himself has often taken a reconciliatory tone toward the U.S post-2009.

Aside from Ahmadinejad and Mashaei, presidential adviser Hamid Baghaei is another key member of this current. It is unclear if this current will play any role in the upcoming election, despite the fascination of the Western media with it.

Traditional Principalists

A current rooted in the conservative right during the first decade after the revolution, this group as it exists today emerged as a reaction to the victory of Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential election. Traditional Principalists have better ties with the Centrist current than Neo-Principalists and the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current, and also have deep ties to the bazaar, a historically important force force in Iran. Although conservative, they are more moderate than the Neo-Principalists, and since 2009 the Traditional Principalists have often found themselves at odds with these hardliners.

This current contains a number of senior political figures including parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani as well as more independent figures such as parliamentarians Mohammad-Reza Bahonar and Ahmad Tavakoli. They are very likely to participate in the election given that they are part of the mainstream, but it is unclear if the supreme leader and IRGC would allow a candidate from this current to assume the presidency.

Centrists

Another current rooted in the conservative right during the first decade of the revolution, the Centrists emerged under the leadership of one of the regime’s most powerful and enduring politicians, ex-president Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and was in power between 1989 to 1997. It retains some support in the Majlis today. Its platform emphasized economic reform (tending toward free-markets) and led the charge during the Reconstruction Era to recover the economy after Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). This current has received strong support from technocrats and entrepreneurs in the past. Alongside Hashemi-Rafsanjani, ex-Tehran mayor Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi is another well-known figure of this current. It is unclear what, if any, role this current will play in the upcoming election.

Reformists

This current emerged from the radical left during the first decade after the revolution. In its second incarnation after a sweeping victory in the 1997 presidential election it emphasized social and political reforms and attempted to liberalize Iranian society and the political system. Although seen as having governed well during their tenure and having significant political clout between 1997 and 2005, they ultimately failed to make reforms a lasting reality and have been systematically swept from power since, to the extent that they are now becoming marginal players within the Islamic Republic’s political establishment. They particularly failed in supporting social forces, such as students and women, who made their electoral victories possible.

Key Reformist figures include ex-president Khatami, Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi-Khoeiniha, and ex-interior minister Abdollah Nouri, among others. Although they may be allowed to participate in the 2013 election and may cooperate with the Centrists, it is highly unlikely that they will be allowed to win.

Green Movement

The Green Movement, as a social and political movement which emerged and was active between April 2009 until February 2011 and had the support of the majority of Reformists, no longer exists. The Green Movement in Iran today consists of more radical Reformists, led by the imprisoned Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, many of whom are in exile. While there is no doubt much sympathy in Iranian society toward this current, there is no organized support for them, as much of their organized social base was crushed in the aftermath of the controversial 2009 election. The Green Movement as a current is well outside the regime’s political establishment and is unlikely to be a significant factor in the 2013 election. There also appears to be little chance that it could re-emerge as a social and political movement during the election campaign or voting, although there may very well be limited pro-Green demonstrations.