Iranians are gearing up for 2016 parliamentary elections, which will take place on February 25. Some of Iran’s most influential figures are preparing for political battle, building new tactics — and new alliances — aimed at securing them a place on Iran’s grand political stage.
The Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, is one of them. One of the powerful Larijani brothers of Iran, Larijani has worked hard to present himself as the voice of reason, a politician with substantial weight in the middle ground of Iran’s political arena. Sometimes reformists see him as his own, though his politics are for the most part conservative. For years now, he has expressed an interest in starting a new political party. So could now be the time for Larijani to start implementing his vision?
With nine months to go, what shifts can be expected on Iran’s political landscape? Can Larijani successfully present himself as a strong political force with allies on both sides of Iran’s political divide? Is Iran ready for a Larijani-led coalition?
Good for Rouhani and Reformists?
Though in recent years reformists have considered Larijani as part of their camp, the speaker of parliament actually has a volatile track record with them. In fact, back in 1996, when Larijani was president of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the network ran a biweekly TV program that targeted well known and respected intellectuals and reformists, casting them as tools of the Western cultural invasion and as threats to Iran’s national and religious identity. Identity, as the program was called, was so incendiary that reformist President Khatami publicly took issue with it.
But now there are rumors of a coalition in the making, led by Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, Rouhani’s Vice President for Planning and secretary general of the pro-Rouhani Moderation and Development Party. Elsewhere, Eshaq Jahangiri, the First Vice President and the chairman of the central committee of the Agents of Construction Party, was said to have told party members to be on the lookout for moderates with whom the party might be able to work.
But there are critics within the Rouhani administration who will want to ensure collaborations are kept to a minimum. They believe the government must invest in the social policies set out in the 2013 presidential election, a decidedly reformist agenda. And, on the whole, Larijani’s stance more closely resembles that of the hardliners.
The Hardliner Dilemma
Many Iranian politicians say it is hard to make it in politics without engaging with the hardliners — Mohammad-Reza Bahonar, Larijani’s deputy, among them.
And although hardliners make a lot of noise about unity, in reality, most of them are actually unwilling to work together, each believing that they are the right person to fly the flag for the country’s most cherished Islamic ideals and political values. The Islamic Revolution Stability Front, a coalition of hardliners that have led a culture war against President Hassan Rouhani, are currently in the limelight. The group successfully engineered the impeachment of Rouhani’s first science minister, Reza Faraji-Dana, who received a vote of no confidence despite Larijani’s efforts to mediate. The group has undermined Larijani’s influence, and now it has the support of two powerful figures, former speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel and the MP Alireza Zakani. So, as prominent MP Ali Motahari has said, the possibility of a coalition between Larijani and the Stability Front is very remote.
Since the death of two of Iran’s most prominent hardliners — Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi, who was secretary-general of the Militant Clergy Association party and the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, and Habibollah Asgaroladi, the leader of Islamic Coalition Party — Iran’s conservative ranks have been in need of a guiding light, a godfather, someone who can lead them in their battle against reformists with charisma and energy and, at the same time, appeal to the populace.
But most of the obvious choices do not inspire confidence – they are all too old or without ample influence. There is Assembly of Experts head Ali Movahedi-Kermani, a sluggish ayatollah lacking charisma and real influence. Though more dynamic, Seyed Reza Taghavi, the Islamic Coalition Party leader, is not widely seen as an effective organizer. The 81-year-old Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi is popular among hardliner politicians, but less favored among hardliners in the public arena in general. Others include 71-year-old former speaker of the parliament Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, 84-year-old Mohammad Yazdi, the new chairman of the Assembly of Experts, and 88-year-old Ahmad Jannati, the secretary-general of the Guardian Council. All have limited appeal — not least because many of them routinely ignore or defy Iranian law.
Hardliners have gone public with criticisms too, with Deputy Speaker Bahonar arguing against working with moderate reformists. The moment they get power, he said, the problems start. Generally, the idea of this type of coalition is unpopular with hardliners.
Support from the Leaders Faction
Larijani has strong support among the conservative but pragmatic, well-organized Followers of the Leader faction — 170 out of 290 parliamentary representatives are members. The idea of a new party will appeal to some of them, especially those who may not be re-elected in 2016 but who seek to retain some of the perks they currently enjoy, including offices and staff in Tehran or provincial capitals. With Larijani, they could form a strong alliance that could do well in next year’s elections. In recent years, the faction has supported Rouhani’s economic policies, but has been less enthusiastic about his approach to cultural, social and domestic affairs. If Larijani positions himself as the strong man in the middle, he may be able to smooth out some of the rifts between the president’s administration and the Followers of the Leader faction.
Popular in the Provinces
Most of Larijani’s support comes from politicians representing provincial towns. As individuals they can be as powerful as any member of the Stability Front. But they lack media presence, and some of them are relatively inexperienced. And for them, the world of Tehran politics and the battle against the Stability Front is not as important as the issues their constituents face.
The Unfulfilled Dream
Larijani has witnessed firsthand what happens to Iranian politicians who fail to act on their political inclinations when the time is right.
For years, former Speaker Nategh Nouri pandered to hardliners, while at the same time yearning to be the head of their think tank and coordination council. In the end, he was marginalized and eliminated from the political spotlight altogether.
Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani once said that some hardliners wanted to treat him almost like an icon, an unmoving figure to be revered but not central to the political process — and this is not the kind of political figure Larijani wants to be.
The current administration is not seeking to fill parliament with reformist figures — even if it were, there is no way such an outcome could ever materialize, given the power of the Guardian Council. Certainly, Rouhani’s allies are not underestimating the council’s power in February’s parliamentary elections.
Instead, Rouhani’s government wants to reduce the number of hardliners, while increasing the number and the influence of moderate conservatives and moderate reformists. In such a market, Larijani — who continues to present his mainstream middle politics as his most appealing side — could do well.
Whatever the obstacles, criticisms and in-fighting, a Larijani looks set to inspire a coalition of some sort. A coalition party led by Larijani offers room to maneuver, both logistically and in terms of media presence. A candidate close to both Larijani and the administration would be a friend of local and provincial governors, and be well placed to encourage these authorities to push his propaganda and campaign plans. In Iran’s election environment, money is key — regardless of whether the money is clean or dirty.
But there are still so many grey areas, including some big questions: What does the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei make of Larijani’s plan to set up political shop? What do the Revolutionary Guards have to say on the matter?
As with any political environment, Iranian politics goes in cycles. Two decades ago, former President Rafsanjani’s bitter clashes with hardliners led to the president’s isolation, an “independence” that led to the formation of a new party, the Agents of Construction Party. Larijani is playing a risky game – and it remains to be seen whether his political vision will gain ground.
Ultimately, the Speaker of Parliament wants to solidify his role and impact in Iranian politics, and he is uniquely positioned to do so at this juncture. In the current environment, an alliance with Rouhani makes sense, not least because it will allow him to put further pressure on hardliners, and to co-opt them into his wider aspirations. But if he fails to do this, he could end up without any political clout at all.