Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly, or parliamentary, elections fast approach on 26 February 2016. This short article looks at trends which may shape the disposition of Iran’s political forces ahead of this vote. The election is particularly important because, as with other Iranian legislative elections, it could reshape the balance of power in the Islamic Republic and be decisive in facilitating or obstructing President Hassan Rouhani’s domestic political agenda. One general trend that will likely persist in the lead up to and following the election is the realignment of Iranian politics away from the margins and toward the center. Between 1997 and 2013, Iranian politics was dominated by two political currents from the margins: The reformists, who sought reforms to enhance social and political freedoms, and principalists, who governed on a socially conservative, politically authoritarian, and economically populist platform. But both political currents have subsequently been marginalised, albeit for different reasons, and the center of gravity of Iranian politics has begun shifting toward the center with the election of a traditional principalist-dominated parliament in 2012 and the centrist President Rouhani in 2013. By all appearances, this realignment is set to continue.
The reformists, led by figures such as former President Mohammad Khatami, as well as former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karroubi who remain under arrest, have been a target of the Council of Guardian’s hatchet in parliamentary elections as far back as the early-2000s. This trend has intensified since the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential election, with reformists being viewed by principalists as having undermined the political system’s legitimacy. Although the reformists boycotted the 2012 parliamentary elections, the were able to re-exert influence by largely ending the boycott in the 2013 election and contributing to President Rouhani’s victory by mobilising their voter-base. Having been marginalised, they now appear to be seeking to re-assert themselves as an independent political force to be reckoned with by re-entering parliament. But the system has not forgotten nor forgiven their perceived past transgressions, and many of their recognisable figures are likely to face the wrath of the Guardian Council. Former United Nations Ambassador Sadegh Kharrazi’s Second Generation of Reformists (NEDA) had sought to address this issue by reconciling reformism and the system, but his efforts appear to not have gained much traction with reformist elites or voters. Reformists may try to covertly rebuild a significant block in parliament by mass-registering a coterie of fresh faces in the election in the hopes that some, by virtue of being relatively unknown, will evade disqualification, but it’s unclear if this strategy will work.
The neo-principlalists, sometimes referred to as “hardliners”, were the driving force behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, played a prominent role in parliament under former Speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel and others since 2004, and today are composed of such groups as the Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution (PFIR) parliamentary faction. The excesses of the President Ahmadinejad and his neo-principalists acolytes, from their economic mismanagement to out-of-control corruption to isolating foreign policy, discredited this sub-current of the principalists as a governing force. They were subsequently abandoned by the traditional principalists in the 2012 and 2013 elections. Despite being aided by key centers of power within the system, including the Guardian Council’s mass-disqualification of their reformist rivals, they have in the last three years increasingly been pushed to the margins of Iranian politics. One important question to watch will be whether neo-principalists, one of the most important forces in Iranian politics for over a decade, will be able to overcome their state of confusion and disarray to mount a successful electoral campaign.
Having successfully reached a nuclear agreement with the the United States, President Rouhani and his centrist administration are now in a position where they must deliver on the remainder of his 2013 election campaign by generating economic growth and expanding social and political freedoms. However, he has found his domestic social and political agenda obstructed by the principalist-dominated parliament. To be able to advance his agenda, he must gain influence in parliament, among other things. However, unlike 2013 he will probably be unable to rely on the reformists to deliver him votes and influence. As already outlined above, reformists may very well be incapable of further enhancing his power, and could even discredit him among principalists elites whose aid he will need. In the coming months, this will likely convince President Rouhani to pursue a strategy of placing his own centrist allies into parliament and/or becoming closer with the traditional principalists who already dominate the legislature.
Traditional principalists, led by figures such as Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, the supreme leader’s senior foreign policy adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati, and éminence grise Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Nategh-Nouri, are the best positioned to do well in the upcoming 2016 parliamentary elections and act as kingmakers in the system. As quintessential insiders, they have little to fear from the Guardian Council’s ax. On the other hand, by distinguishing themselves from and criticising the neo-principalists, they have enhanced their appeal as candidates to the broader voting public and as partners for President Rouhani and the centrists. From where we stand today, they could strengthen their majority in parliament and influence the direction of Iranian politics for at least the next two years. We will cover developments in these and other political dynamics as they occur in the lead up to the 2016 parliamentary election.