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Return of Old Guard Marks a New Stage in Iran’s Politics

TEHRAN, Jul 1 2013 (IPS) - The victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s Jun. 14 election marked a significant shift in Iranian politics, occasioned by the forceful return of the two most important political factions of the Islamic Republic – traditional conservatives and reformists.

Hassan Rouhani. Credit: Mojtaba Salimi/cc by 3.0

Hassan Rouhani. Credit: Mojtaba Salimi/cc by 3.0

These two factions had been sidelined in the past decade. In fact, many had assumed that they had permanently lost their significance, giving way to either a more radical version of conservatism or the personal dictatorship of Leader Ali Khamenei.

But the alliance that was created in support of Rouhani’s candidacy by three key figures of the Islamic Republic – former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, as well as former speaker of the Parliament and presidential candidate Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri – set the stage for the return of both traditional conservatism and reformism to Iranian politics.

These two factions were effectively the founding pillars of the Islamic Republic. In the 1980s, they were identified as the right and left wings of the Islamic Republic because of their disagreements over the economic direction of the country.

But, by the late 1990s, they became known as the principlist and reformist wings due to their political differences over whether the republican or Islamic sides of the Islamic Republic should be given greater emphasis.

In the 1980s, prime minister Mir Hossein Mussavi, now under house arrest, was considered a leftist, focusing on economic justice and state control of the economy, while then-president Khamenei was deemed close to the Islamic Republic’s right wing which defended the importance of private property and the private sector.

Even the membership of the Guardian Council – which, along with the vetting of candidates for the executive and legislative branches, is tasked with assessing legislation for their constitutionality, as well as their Islamic content – included individuals from both factions.

Control of Iran’s Parliament shifted from one faction to another and from one election to another over the years. President Rafsanjani (1989-97), who has long tried to straddle both wings as a self-identified centrist and moderate, had to deal with both leftist- and rightist-controlled parliaments. Similarly, reformist President Khatami (1997-2005) had to negotiate with both reformist and principlist-controlled parliaments.

But this political arrangement began to fall apart with the 2004 parliamentary election and then the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. He came to power with Principlist support and immediately began the process of purging the leftist/ reformist wing of the Islamic Republic.

Initially, the purge created a temporary alliance between Ahmadinejad and traditional conservatives who were happy to see their ideological opponents pushed out of the political process.

But positioning himself as a younger-generation populist, Ahmadinejad soon began to turn against the other political pillar of the Islamic Republic: traditional conservatism. While traditional conservatives maintained their presence in the judiciary and the parliament, Khamenei’s support permitted Ahmadinejad to effectively prevent any kind of legal challenge to his imperial governing style in the executive branch.

After the 2009 contested election in which Ahmadinejad was re-elected, it was Khamenei’s continued backing that led to parliament’s approval of his cabinet ministers, the prevention of various efforts to impeach him, and halting the many judicial cases against Ahmadinejad’s illegal conduct, including his repeated refusal to implement legislation passed by the Parliament.

It was within this context that Iran’s traditional conservatives began to realise that they could meet the same fate as the reformists if they did not step up and help revive some of the old political pillars of the Islamic Republic.

Instead of competing against their old their old nemeses, the reformists, they forged an alliance behind the candidacy of Rouhani, who, while belonging to the Islamic Republic’s right wing, successfully wooed the reformist vote through his criticism of the increasingly securitised political environment of Iran and the purge of key reformist politicians in the past decade.

To understand the extent of the change this alliance represented in Iran’s recent history, suffice to say that the two main candidates who ran against each other in 1997 – reformist Khatami and conservative Nateq Nouri – joined hands to rally their supporters behind Rouhani’s candidacy.

The intent of the alliance was to forestall the encroaching dictatorship of the office of the Leader and prevent the radicals with little respect for the electoral process from consolidating their control of that office.

In many ways, the formation of this alliance was an unprecedented act in the history of modern Iran and, according to many observers inside the country, reflective of the “maturity” of the political players.

In the words of reformist journalist Abbas Abdi, writing for Etemaad Daily, “This election was deeper than other elections in Iran in terms of its political meaning, and at this time we can be hopeful that it will be the beginning of a new trend in the Iranian society.”

A historian of contemporary Iran who did not want to be identified went further. He told IPS that in Iran’s recent history there were many moments when political players could have paved the way for further change and democratisation had they been able to co-operate with each other and form alliances. However, their inability to do so led to the eventual purge of all of them and the re-establishment of personal dictatorship.

The most noted example in recent memory was the collapse of the democratic coalition built by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq with the help of cleric Ayatollah Abolqassem Kashani in the early 1950s. Ultimately Mossadeq’s fall from power was assured through a CIA-sponsored military coup that brought the Shah back to power. But the coup was made easy because the coalition built by Mossadeq had by then fallen apart.

According to this historian, “the principlist-reformist alliance is such an important event that it can be said to have catapulted Iran into a new stage of its history.”

This historian also notes that at no time in Iran’s modern history has there been such “an urge in both society, as well as government circles for unity and cooperation, in the face of external threats,” including both the U.S.-led economic sanctions and threats of war by Israel and the United States.

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