Iran's Reformists, Hardliners Drawing Battle Lines for 2016 Elections

Iran's legislature, the Majles, has been a thorn in Rouhani's side. His allies are trying to find ways to change that.

The election of Hassan Rouhani as president last year ushered in hope of a new era in politics to reform Iran out of the chaos sown by eight long years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and strike a deal to end ruinous economic sanctions imposed by the West.

But the parliamentary elections in 18 months’ time are equally important as they will determine if the Iranian elite will lock in real reform or not. Parliament has the power to keep Rouhani’s “government of hope and prudence” down. Similarly, it has the power to give it wings to unshackle Iran from sanctions, isolation and even the impunity of its security and intelligence services.

Half of the Majles (parliament) is composed of “principlists,” a conservative bloc espousing fidelity to what its followers say are the founding values of the 1979 revolution. Many sit under the banner of the United Front, fair-weather friends to the government led by Ali Larijani, speaker of the house and a staunch loyalist to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Others form the Steadfastness front, an ultraconservative faction vociferously opposed to any talk of reform and backed by Iran’s most infamous hardliner Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi. Most reformists were blocked from running in the 2008 and 2012 elections, their key parties made illegal by the conservative-biased Guardian Council (a body half directly, half indirectly, constitutionally controlled by the Supreme Leader). Reformists now only make up less than a quarter of the Majles. None are very well known.

Many of these conservative MPs have been making life difficult for the young administration of Rouhani, summoning cabinet ministers for regular questioning; stoking rumours about the president’s PhD (“It’s a fake!”); and whispering of Khamenei’s alleged dissatisfaction with his president. Last month they drew blood, coordinating no-confidence win to impeach Reza Faraji-Dana, a reformist minister responsible for higher education whose liberalising reforms were popular among professors and students—and threatened to air the radicals’ dirty laundry.

The reformists, revived by their critical role in getting centrist Rouhani elected, are preparing to fight back to win more power for their man in the 2016 elections and for their own influence in the governance of the Islamic Republic. Horse-trading has begun to forge a reformist-centrist pact to kick out of parliament the extremist fringes of the conservative camp.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, a senior reformist figure and brother of former president Mohammad Khatami, let the cat out the bag on August 17: "Reformists are now working together and we are sure that we will have positive results in the next Majles elections” and will sideline "minority” extremists, he said. Khatami was banned from leaving Iran soon after. Hamid Reza Jala'ipur, an academic and advocate close to Rouhani, echoed Khatami’s announcement, laying down the gauntlet to the principlists: "They have a choice to make: they can either be like Ali Motahhari [a moderate principlist who supports the government and is likely to enter the mooted reformist-centrist coalition], or put their hope on the Guardian Council's disqualifications."

The secretary general of the centrist Construction Party has announced that reformist parties may reach an agreement to nominate Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, who has a record of opposing radicals, as their lead candidate 2016. He officially denies it. Failed presidential candidate and one-time vice president during Iran’s reformist years (1997-2005) Mohammad Reza Aref has announced he is running, probably for a Tehran seat, though he is likely too far left to command a wide coalition and is “harmless as a matchstick” according to some observers, evoking an odd Persian idiom.

"Inspired by the 2013 presidential election, the objective of the reformists in the coming Majles election is not to win per se but to ensure that through alliances throughout the country with centrists an even conservatives they will prevent the reelection of boisterous hardliners to the Majles,” explains Professor Farideh Farhi, an Iran scholar formerly at Tehran University and now at the University of Hawai'i. “A Majles that looks more like the Fifth Majles [following 1996 elections] - with a balance of conservatives, centrists and some reformists - is more than good enough. The objective is to create a Majles more in synchrony with Rouhani and not a reformist win which is quite unlikely anyways given the expected disqualification by the Guardian Council of many reformist candidates.”

The Guardian Council’s arch-conservative chairman, Ahmad Jannati, recently delivered a caustic speech against Iran’s reformists, leaving little doubt that the Council will not continence a reformist majority in 2016.

The moderate Ebtekar newspaper on September 10 reported that Jannati warned of the "return of seditionists", an extremely loaded term for the reformists involved in stoking the tumult that erupted in Tehran after the disputed reelection of Ahmadinejad in 2009.

"Certain individuals have designs for the parliamentary elections," he said, adding that he "is in possession of documents which indicate that after resolving the nuclear issue, certain individuals intend to siege [sic] parliament". The hardline press regularly foretells of the “reformists’ conquering of institutions of power, one after another”.

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