Iran Election Watch 2016: Larijani refuses to join conservative electoral alliance

The Principalist Alliance Central Council (PACC) has been formed, with Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel as its spokesman, in the hopes of uniting Iran’s conservative current in the lead up to the 2016 parliamentary election. But Ali Larijani’s refusal to join could sustain or even strengthen conservative disunity in this election and beyond.

As we have argued in the past, Iran’s conservative current, known as the principalists, have since their formation in the late-1990s been, generally speaking, composed of two majour sub-currents: The traditional and neo-principalists. By coming to a consensus on a range of issues – including supreme leader-centric politics and social conservatism – these sub-currents were able to build a united front and dominate nearly all of Iran’s elected and unelected centers of power from 2003 to 2013.

However, beginning with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial and tumultuous re-election in the 2009 presidential election, the principalist coalition began to fracture and fall apart, culminating in their defeat to Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential election. Since then the traditional principalists have become kingmakers of sorts by virtue of their position between the more hardline neo-principalists and the moderate centrist-reformist coalition. One of the big questions of the upcoming 2016 Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliamentary) and Assembly of Experts elections is how traditional principalists, whose key figures include by Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, Ali-Akbar Nategh-Nouri, and Ali-Akbar Velayati, will position themselves and how this will affect the broader structure of Iran’s factional politics.

A new principalist alliance is formed

The formation of the Principalist Alliance Central Council (PACC), with former Speaker of Parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel as its spokesman, could give us an important hint about just how things may play out. This alliance appears to be seeking to reconcile traditional and neo-principalism by declaring itself to be both anti-“sedition” (i.e. Green Movement and reformist) and anti-“deviant current” (i.e. the excesses of the second Ahmadinejad administration and such groups as the Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution parliamentary faction). Reflecting on the defeat of 2013, the PACC emphasises putting aside partisanship for the sake of principalist unity backed by the conservative clerical establishment:

“Simultaneous to the start of electoral activities, and following feeling the necessity of unity and alliance among principalist groups all across the country in the 10th election of the Islamic Consultative Assembly and request of these groups from their excellencies Ayatollahs Yazdi, Mesbah, and Movahedi-Kermani for guiding principalists toward unity, the “Principalist Alliance Central Council”, by invitation of Ayatollah Movahedi-Kermani, general-secretary of the Combatant Clergy Association, with the presence of representatives of principalist associations and a number of active principalist political figures, was formed.”

Larijani’s gambit

Critically, however, it appears that Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and his Followers of the Leadership Principalist Faction have refused to join this alliance, instead seemingly opting to act independently in the election. Mansour Haghighatpour, a member of the Followers of the Leadership’s central council, recently lent credence to this idea, declaring:

“Larijani has not attended the sessions of this [principalist] alliance, and it is my opinion that he shall not be present…In this morning’s session of this faction, the majority of members with a decisive vote elected that we want to act independently and the parliament’s Followers of the Leadership faction shall enter the field in the future election as an independent principalist faction.”

He also downplayed the possibility that the Followers of the Leadership would join the principalist alliance for the duration of the upcoming parliamentary elections:

“The time has passed and soon we must all register. I feel our friends in the Principalist United Front have not provided the necessary mechanisms for the creation of unity…They did not invite us at all. They are repeating the experience of past alliances that have not been productive; therefore we have wanted to act independently. Of course we respect the clergy and always have abided by the clergy’s opinion. However currents exist which today do not allow for our presence in this alliance under these conditions. Therefore we seek to act independently.”

Despite such indications that Larijani would not be joining the principalist alliance, the Iranian principalist media and some principalist figures have nonetheless continued to speculate about this possibility, including Combatant Clergy Association Spokesman Gholam-Reza Mesbahi-Moghadam. However, Larijani’s spokesman in the Followers of the Ledership Behrooz Nemati also denied this possibility in no uncertain terms: “Rumours of Dr. Larijani’s joining of the principalist alliance was only the personal take of Hojatoleslam Mesbahi-Moghaddam and some media outlets have published their own desires and preferences about the principalist alliance…The head of parliament shall not join any alliance.”

Conclusion

In seeking to act more independently in the upcoming elections, Larijani and the Followers of the Ledership may be re-positioning themselves closer to the president and his moderate allies. With the reformists likely to be largely excluded from the elections by the Council of Guardian’s ax, Larijani and his traditional principalist allies would potentially stand to benefit greatly from a pro-Rouhani electoral wave. If this turns out to be the case, it could change the structure of Iranian politics by creating a much closer coalition of centrists and traditional principalists facing off against the neo-principalists in parliament and elsewhere.

Of course, we should not quickly discount the Principalist Alliance Central Council as necessarily being doomed to failure without Larijani and the Followers of the Leadership. With the help of the Council of Guardian’s powers of disqualification and some demonstrated electoral appeal, the revitalised neo-principalists could become positioned to do well in the upcoming election. As we near the deadline for registering for the elections, these dynamics will become much clearer.