Iran's perennial reformist-conservative fracas

The Islamic republic’s looming presidential election is likely to aggravate longstanding political fault-lines

Iran's perennial reformist-conservative fracas

Teshgom Kamal

Iran is preparing for its 12th presidential election scheduled for May 19, 2017.

In an address delivered at a gathering of members of the Executive Election Board on Feb. 25, President Hassan Rouhani warned his audience: “In this case [election] I will not accept if someone announced that the Guardian Council was responsible; [or] the Guardian Council had the responsibility of supervising the election. Therefore, if any security, armed forces, or law enforcement institution violates the law, we should stand and protest.”

President Rouhani has always demonstrated boldness. However, his latest statement suggests anxiety. What is Rouhani’s main obsession? Who is he talking to? And what is it that he is trying to convey? To read his mind, one should look at the military authority distribution module and the alignment of political forces in the Islamic republic.

Supreme leadership

Unlike other republics, in the Iranian political system, the chief commander of the country’s armed forces is not the president, but the supreme leader. He delegates the command of the police force to the interior minister. This also depends on who the president is. For instance, during the presidency of late Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2006-2013), the supreme leader delegated command to the interior minister.

But during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), the supreme leader delayed delegation of command for over a year. He did it only when then Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri, a key ally of Khatami, was removed by parliament following an interpellation and replaced by Mosavi Lari, a less controversial figure.

As far as President Rouhani is concerned, the supreme leader has delegated command of the police force to the current interior minister.

Yet the police force makes up only a small portion of the Iranian security establishment given the existence of other more powerful security institutions, such as the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and the Basij Resistance Force, among others.

As a result, President Rouhani’s law enforcement authority is very limited.

Naming candidates

That said, with less than three months until the election, there is considerable mix-up in the conservative camp. At their recent gathering, the conservatives chose 21 nominees. Out of this number, they shortlisted 14 people after a two-week consultation.

Had such a list been compiled by the reformist-moderate camp, it would have made sense. Given the unpredictability of the Guardian Council, it could be argued that moderate-reformists should have at least a few reserve candidates so they would not end up with an unwanted surprise by the disqualification of their principal candidate during the vetting process in the Guardian Council.

But this is not the case with the conservatives at all, as any candidate nominated by them already has the guaranteed approval of the council. Therefore, the reason behind the introduction of over 14 nominees should be sought somewhere else, namely, the source of their power.

The conservatives’ sources of power are by and large derived from what is popularly known as Boyout (plural of the Arabic word “bayt”, or “house”, which also bears the connotation of “sanctity” and is used only for the houses of the top Shia clergy).

At the top of all these Boyout is that of the supreme leader, which is the religious and political powerhouse of the Islamic republic. There is no self-made person in the conservative camp who can personally emerge as an all-influential and popular figure.

As a result, around election time, many people are tempted to try their luck. But they do it by lobbying with the boyout, rather than lobbying with various political forces at the grassroots level.

Non-clerical nominees

If one looks at the 14 names on the so-called list, they are arranged in alphabetical order. This means the initials of the nominees’ names are the only criteria under consideration.

Furthermore, several of these nominees have tried their luck before, and some of them -- such as Qalibaf and Mohsen Rezaee -- have done this more than once.

More importantly, most of them are non-clerical, which appears more problematic.

The ruling religious authorities have had two bitter experiences with non-clerical presidents. Abdul Hasan Bani Sadr (1980-1981) stood against Ayatollah Khomeini and was eventually impeached and removed. Ahmadinejad, during his second term (2009-2013), also quarrelled with the current supreme leader.

As a result, the clergy have developed serious doubts over the reliability of a president from outside their guild. It is due to this deficiency of trust that a few days earlier a group of conservatives officially invited Ibrahim Raeesi, the current custodian of Astan e Quds Razavi, to be their candidate, though he reportedly turned the invitation down.

As noted by Bastani, an expert on Iranian politics, Raeesi’s rejection is related to the rumor about his candidacy as a possible successor to the supreme leader, since entering the race and losing would ruin his chances of ever assuming the supreme leadership as well.

It would not seem appropriate for a supreme leader candidate to have an electoral defeat under his belt.

Support for reformist-moderates

What the principled (conservative) camp appreciates but refuses to admit is that it is suffering from a lack of popular legitimacy. Although in democracies, elections are part of the democratic practice and mechanisms for peaceful transfer of power, in the Iranian context, elections are viewed as “a marathon of democracy versus theocracy”.

The general trend in Iranian presidential elections show that Iranian voters have particularly targeted the absolute authority of the supreme leader.

That is why one can easily see in the Iranian presidential elections that the popular grace has been with non-conservative candidates who have been more distant from the establishment, particularly from the supreme leader.

In contrast, the reformist-moderate camp is in a better position. It enjoys some sort of popular legitimacy.

Moreover, there is no shortage of self-made candidates in this camp. If the Guardian Council allows, they have Muhammad Khatami, Abdullah Noori and Muhammad Reza Arif, among many others. They are even comfortable with Natiq Noori, a one-time conservative, who lost badly against Khatami in 1997.

Apart from this, President Rouhani himself is in a sound position, and reformist-moderate forces seem to have reached a consensus about standing behind him.


In a nutshell, the principled camp is at a serious disadvantage in terms of securing popular trust in favor of its candidate as well as the availability of a suitable candidate, while the moderate-reformist camp is in a far better position in both aspects.

In such a scenario, the conservatives have only two options to redress this imbalance. One option is to use the Guardian Council, which is under their control, and disqualify President Rouhani, along with any other candidate potentially supportable by reformist-moderate forces.

This seems costly for the establishment, as it affects election turnout -- a key issue in the Islamic Republic. The ruling elites always project election turnout as a sign of support for their ruling style.

The alternative option is to manage the voting outcome through manipulation and rigging, the way it was allegedly done in the 2009 election. It is here that President Rouhani’s statement -- quoted above -- finds its relevance.

Rouhani’s veiled threat

As an insider with first-hand security experience and information, President Rouhani might suspect that certain elements of the Iranian security forces are intending to manipulate results of the vote.

President Rouhani is in fact trying to mobilize all his executive power to ensure a fair election. He is quite sure that in a fair voting environment, the conservative candidate could not make headway.

Through his latest statement, President Rouhani is trying to convey that he can go beyond making mere statements and assume a more practical approach, should rival conservatives not observe the rules of the game.

Specifically speaking, he is implying that he could make any attempt at rigging cost the establishment dearly, the way Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi did in the 2009 election.

But we have to wait and see whether or not the Iranian establishment has the stamina to risk another post-election insurgency.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 18 Mart 2017, 12:55