Principalists Divided: Neo-Principalists under attack from Traditional Principalists

The victory of Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 Iranian presidential election continues to reverberate throughout Iran and the world. Not surprisingly, one place where this victory is having a potentially profound effect is within the Principalist political current. Despite being heavily favored to win by many inside and outside of Iran, Principalist candidates performed very poorly with their best performing candidate Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf receiving only 16.5 percent of the vote compared to Rouhani’s 50.7 percent which allowed the Centrist-Reformist compromise candidate to unexpectedly win the election in the first round.

We here at IranPolitik have focused on the divisions within Principalism, specially between hardline Neo-Principalists versus moderate conservative Traditional Principalists, for sometime now. In trying to understand the 2013 election’s outcome, we argued that an important contributor may have been the increasingly profound conflict between Neo- and Traditional Principalists and the lack of Principalist unity overall. This thesis seems to have been strengthened by the attacks by Traditional Principalists on Neo-Principalists in the last week. Neo-Principalists figures such as 2013 presidential candidate Saeed Jalili and clergyman Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazd have been especially targeted. Below we have provided three examples which are characteristic of the kind of attacks being brought against Neo-Principalists.

The day following the release of the final election results Tehran Emrooz, a newspaper associated with Ghalibaf, criticized Jalili in its front-page article. Instead of supporting fellow Principalist Ghalibaf, Tehran Emrooz asserted, Jalili had attacked him. Furthermore, the newspaper essentially placed the weight of the Principalist defeat on Jalili’s shoulders: “Our question to you [Jalili] is whether you truly performed your duty when you turned the presidential election into a referendum on the nuclear program? Did you perform your duty when you caused your foreign counterparts [in the P5+1] to think that from now on that the idea of resistance and not retreating on our nuclear rights is only supported by four million some Iranians [the number who voted for Jalili]?” Making a football reference, Tehran Emrooz remarked that “Mr. Jalili you gave the scoring pass to Mr. Rouhani.”

In an Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) article entitled “Things left unsaid from Mahdavi-Kani’s last attempt at unity in the election” Mostafa Mir Lohi, head of the office of Assembly of Experts chairman and senior Traditional Principalist clergyman Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani, berated Jalili for essentially snubbing Mahdavi-Kani and the Ghom clerical establishment, saying that even Reformist candidate Mohammad-Reza Aref knew enough to pay his respects to the elder clergyman despite their political differences. Mir Lohi disapprovingly noted that Jalili did not even come before Mahdavi-Kani “for the sake of appearances and suddenly made a decision and entered the election.”

Another major target of Traditional Principalist attack has been Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, perhaps the most prominent senior Neo-Principalist clergyman. In an interview entitled “The conflict between Ayatollah Mesbah with Qom’s clergy”  in the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA), Traditional Principalist and Merchants and Shopkeepers’ Guild General Secretary Ahmad Karimi-Esfahani attacked Mesbah-Yazdi for what he asserted was the elder clergyman’s contradictory and divisive actions. Karimi-Esfahani claimed that Mesbah-Yazdi first supported former Minister of Health Kamran Bagheri-Lankarani for the election while attacking Jalili, and only after realizing that the former would be disqualified by the Council of Guardian’s did he shift his support behind Jalili. By supporting Jalili however the interviewee suggests that Mesbah-Yazdi continued creating divisions among Ghom’s clergy, which he implies preferred a more moderate candidate. Karimi-Esfahani concluded by saying that such behaviour from Mesbah-Yazdi “must be stopped”.

In the debates over the nature of the “Guardianshipship of the Jurist” (velayat-e faghigh), the political-religious theory at the center of the Islamic Republic’s political system, Mesbah-Yazdi is considered to be at the extreme of the clerical ideological spectrum which favours an absolute supreme leader. According to Yale University scholar Abbas Amanat:

“Misbah Yazdi argues that the Guardian Jurist is solely designated by the Mahdi (the Hidden Imam) rather than by the people and that his command (hukm) is obligatory for all. The people’s only prerogative is to “discover” (kashf) the guardian from among qualified jurists but they have no say in accepting or rejecting his decisions and have no right to participate in decision-making for the affairs of state. The Guardian Jurist consults only with experts in various fields in order to better govern but has no obligation to comply with their opinions.”*

We have contended for sometime now that Mesbah-Yazdi’s hardline interpretation  of velayat-e faghih has been dominant among Neo-Principalists. The current election was also partially been a referendum on the Neo-Principalist’s hardline policies over the last eight years, including their interpretation of velayat-e faghih, and since the surprise outcome on 15 June they have been increasingly under attack and discredited. We will have to wait somewhat to see what changes the election outcome engenders in Principalism in general and the Neo-Principalists in particular, but one may be the increasing marginalizations of Mesbah-Yazdi and his extremist acolytes. This can only be a boon for the cause of democracy in Iran and an impetus for more moderate domestic policies in the future.

* Amanat, Abbas. Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi’ism. London: I. B. Tauris, 2009. Print. P.196.