Iran’s Conservatives Try a Bit of Democracy: Will It Work?

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by Farideh Farhi

Iran’s presidential election is slightly over two months away, and Iran’s conservatives are still struggling to find a candidate to rally around against President Hassan Rouhani who has the support of a fairly unified alliance of moderates and reformists.

Having identified the multiplicity of candidates as the source of their loss in the 2013 presidential election, conservative political parties and groups are trying to settle on a single candidate. In December 2016, a range of conservative groups, from traditional to hardline, announced yet another alliance under the rubric of the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution’s Forces (PFIRF). Devoid of any policy platform, the alliance aims to serve as a vehicle for finding the one candidate that is acceptable across the conservative ranks and has the best chance of beating Rouhani.

Forming short-term pre-election political alliances is not new in Iran. But the mechanism devised was novel—a sort of primary-style gathering to vote on potential candidates. In late February, approximately 3,000 conservatives of different ilk from all over the country gathered in the PFIRF’s “first national assembly” to vote for a short list of potential candidates. The assembled delegates took a vote and elected a central committee, but the get-together ultimately failed to announce a short list of candidates. Reportedly, some of the choices did not even attend the meeting and may not have been willing to be candidates. For instance, cleric Ebrahim Raisi, the custodian of the Imam Reza shrine endowment (Astan-e Quds Razavi), and Parviz Fattah, who heads the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, explicitly announced that they would not be willing to run.

As a result, members of PFIRF’s central committee will be spending their time in the coming month talking to various potential candidates, including Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Mohsen Rezaee who ran and lost to Rouhani in the 2013 election. Then, in late March or early April at the Front’s second national assembly, the committee will again put a list of 10 people up for a vote. They hope to produce one leading candidate and one “reserve” candidate just in case something goes wrong with the leading candidate (such as Guardian Council disqualification).

Underlying Weakness

It’s uncertain whether this exercise in rank-and-file democratic process will lead to the desired result of selecting a unified candidate. But even if this happens, it does little to address other problems conservatives have had, the most important of which is the lack of a decipherable platform or policy alternatives. The spokeswoman for PFIRF, former health minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, insisted that the Front’s candidate will enter the election with a platform and a team of proposed ministers. But she could not offer anything beyond the determination on the part of the eventual candidate to resolve the economic problems people face.

The inability to offer concrete suggestions is not surprising. The alliance is made up of a motley crew of individuals and groups with unclear points of view particularly on how to approach Iran’s economic woes, which is the core issue of this election. The Front’s membership ranges from the older established conservative alliances, such as the Followers of Imam and Leadership Line (itself consisting of 18 groups), to newer groups such as Yekta, which is mostly composed of ministers who served under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It doesn’t include the circle around the former president himself as well as the hardline Steadfastness Front that draws inspiration from the cleric Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, who questions the wisdom of relying on popular choice to run the country. Whoever ends up becoming the candidate of choice will then announce his positions, which those who chose him may or may not like.

The lack of clarity regarding policies has plagued all political parties and groups in Iran as the result of an atrophied political process that focuses on the character and political tendencies of individual candidates. What those tendencies mean in terms of actual policy proposals is rarely discussed. According to former deputy Speaker of the Parliament and current secretary of the Followers of Imam and Leadership Line, Mohammad-Reza Bahonar, about “400 political parties have received permits from the Interior Ministry but 350 are only papers in some individuals’ pockets” and out of the 50 remaining, only 30 became active during elections. He should have added that the membership of most of these parties is not more than a couple of hundred people. But he does rightly point out that the positions and relations of the 20 “active” political parties are not clear either. “Whether you call me Right or Principlist, [the name] entails a broad spectrum in the country [so that] when a Friday Prayer Leader speaks somewhere in the country we are held responsible for his words. This is while neither I can be responsive for his words nor he for mine,” he stated.

Future of the JCPOA

Lack of clarity is a real issue in this particular election because the sitting president can point to at least one major accomplishment—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Although the nuclear agreement has not yet brought significant economic improvements across the board, it has contributed to a growth rate in 2016 of over 7 percent—mostly fueled by the doubling of oil exports—despite banking system weaknesses, structural bottlenecks, and the hesitancy of foreign banks to re-establish financial links to help underwrite expansion of non-oil activity.

Because of this accomplishment—and despite attacks on the government for failing to move the economy out of “real recession”—no one has been willing to talk about abrogating the nuclear agreement. To be sure, much is said about the lackluster results of the agreement. The hardline Kayhan Daily and Vatan-e Emrooz satirize the JCPOA’s lack of accomplishments in their headlines on an almost daily basis. The government is also criticized for “looking to the outside world” for fixing the Iranian economy and not giving sufficient attention to the “resistance economy” demanded by the Leader Ali Khamenei.

But no one, not even former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili—who has been making the rounds as a critic of the nuclear agreement and has been mooted as a potential presidential candidate by the Steadfastness Front—has been willing to call for the abrogation of the agreement. “Whether you are opposed or in favor, the reality is that the JCPOA exists,” he said in response to a student’s question about the future of the JCPOA, adding that “in articulating our demands from the other side we must show strong vigilance.” The conservative attempt to have its cake and eat it too— heavily criticizing the JCPOA but not going as far as calling for its abrogation (or maintaining ambiguity about what they propose to do with it)—will be a difficult position to sustain as the presidential campaign officially kicks into gear.

The official period for the presidential campaign in Iran is very short, from April 27 to May 18. The slate of the registrants who will be qualified to run will not be finalized until April 26. Even then, some approved candidates may drop out in favor of others. It is also not clear whether there will be television debates and, if so, what shape they will take. But when the campaign begins, Iran’s conservatives—collectively known as the principlists—in all likelihood will find out that their real problem is not the lack of a unified candidate but the dearth of unity and clarity regarding the principles and policies they can offer to the Iranian public.

Photo: Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi

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Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua (University of Illinois Press) and numerous articles and book chapters on compartative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and was most recently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.