Since 2009 Green Movement demonstrations, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s factional politics have been in a state of flux, from the left to the right of the political spectrum. On the left, the story has been dominated by the rapid rise and equally rapid repression of the Green Movement, which advocated more radical reforms than its parent Second of Khordad (Reformist) Movement. The latter has also been the subject of considerable repression. Centrists, once equally reviled by the left and right, are now in the ascendency with their own Hassan Rouhani elected as president in June 2013, thanks in part to the policies and failures of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration. Principalists on the right, for their part, have been pulled in three directions, with Ahmadinejad and his side-kick Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei trying (and failing) to break off to form their own powerful current, and Neo- and Traditional Principalists coming to blows and ultimately losing the presidency because of their diverging interests and unity. The shape of this new era, which had its origins in 2009 but only truly began with the election of Rouhani, has yet to be determined, but this week may have glimpsed an important clue about its trajectory.
In an interview with Mehr News Agency (MNA) Abed Fattah, a Reformist representative in Iran’s parliament, indicated that nearly 70 representatives under the leadership of Ali Mothahari would be breaking-off from the Traditional Principalist-leaning Rahrovan-e Velayat (Followers of the Leader) faction to form the new pro-Rouhani Seday-e Mellat (Voice of the Nation) faction. The title of the MNA article, “The rupture of Voice of the Nation from the faction of the Followers”, and Fattah’s own account of what has happened give a sense of the violent disagreements within the Traditional Principalists. Fattah explained that:
“Preparations for forming the Voice of the Nation faction has taken place and this faction shall have some 70 members of parliament; this numbers means that the weight of the three factions, the Principalists, Rahrovan-e Velayat, and Voice of the Nation, shall be equalized.”
The “Principalists” faction above specifically refers to the Neo-Principalist-leaning grouping in parliament, the most hardline of any faction, led by Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel. Fattah asserted that the only reason this break had not happened earlier was Ali Larijani, head of the Followers of the Leader and speaker of the parliament, “because with the creation of the Voice of the Nation faction most of the departures will come from the Followers of the Leader.” From the interview at least part of the reasoning for the creation of this new faction appears clear: Traditional Principalists like Mothahari, who have cordial ties with Centrists and are not strongly anti-Reformist, feel that the current parliament is creating too many obstacles for the new president and are breaking off from the mainstream Principalist movement to form their own parliamentary faction that will more staunchly support the new president.
If this turns out to be true, it raises a number of interesting questions. What could it mean for the balance of power inside the parliament, and ultimately for the power of Rouhani and his supporters? On the one hand, it could be a positive development because the president will have a solid block of supporters to back him at a rhetorical level and to perhaps decisively shift some votes in his favor. However, it is far from clear that this break within the Followers of the Leader faction will really improve things for the president. For one thing, it could be a sign of increasingly strained ties between Rouhani and Traditional Principalists. In the past we have argued that the latter’s break with Neo-Principalists and acquiescence to Rouhani’s candidacy was an important factor in the outcome of the presidential election. If the Voice of the Nation’s break from the Followers of the Leader faction is a sign of rising tensions between Rouhani’s Centrists and Larijani’s Traditional Principalists, than it could in fact result in greater obstacles with the president in regard to a number of issues. Mothahari, while a strong independent voice in the parliament, is not necessarily a figure who can change the balance in parliament.
Could this be a sign of things to come? If something has changed in the dynamics of the parliament and larger regime, then perhaps this was the first major step toward the creation of a pro-Rouhani parliament in the 2016 election. However, this could also just be a blip on the radar and those who have strongly backed the president could face serious consequences and obstacles, one of the most extreme being a wave disqualifications at the hands of the Council of Guardians. The implications of the rise of a pro-Rouhani faction in parliament remain to be seen.