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Opinion | Iran's Parliamentary Elections, Part II: The Role of the Military

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI

28 Feb 2012 03:06Comments

Part I: The Political Landscape

CampaignPosters1Mehr.jpg[ opinion ] As discussed in part I of this series, practically every reformist and democratic group in Iran has called for a boycott of the Majles elections to be held this Friday, March 2. This leaves only the conservatives and hardliners to compete. But the remaining factions, despite being virtually identical ideologically, are far from unified -- in fact, they are deeply split. At the same time, although the elections will be a sham by ordinary democratic standards, the stakes are very high and the vote's outcome will have a major impact, at least in the short term.

Who are the main players in the upcoming elections? There are four primary factions:

One is Jebheh Mottahed-e Osoolgarayan (JMO, or United Front of Principlists). The JMO consists of supporters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as well as those who believe that, in order to advance their agenda, they still need his authority for the time being. Officially, the JMO is led by Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, chairman of the Assembly of Experts, and the Assembly's deputy chairman, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, former chief of the judiciary, who is utterly reactionary and reputedly corrupt cleric. As described below, however, the JMO is actually led by several former officers and commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The second faction, which consists of followers of the reactionary cleric Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, is called Jebheh Paaydaari-e Enghlelab-e Eslami (JPEE, or Durable Front of the Islamic Revolution). Mesbah, as he is referred to in Iran, was a fierce supporter of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who professed his loyalty to the cleric many times. But after the deep rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei came into the open -- especially after Ahmadinejad and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, his chief of staff and close confidant, spoke openly about how they were linked directly to Imam Mahdi rather than through Khamenei, whose supporters promote him as the Imam's deputy -- Mesbah Yazdi publicly distanced himself from the president. The truth is that the JPEE consists entirely of Ahmadinejad supporters and its members include many who served as officials under him since he first rose to prominence as Tehran's mayor in 2002. In fact, the JPEE has made it clear that its members still support Ahmadinejad, though not Rahim Mashaei.

The third faction is led by Mohsen Rezaei, the retired major general and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief between 1981 and 1997, who is currently the secretary-general of the Expediency Discernment Council, which arbitrates disputes between the Majles and the Guardian Council and acts as an advisory board to Khamenei. It is called Jebheh Eistaadegi Enghelab-e Eslami (JEEE, or Resistance Front of the Islamic Revolution). It does not have wide support among the conservatives and hardliners, but Rezaei has always tried to position himself as an acceptable alternative to both the JPEE and JMO. In fact, anyone who wanted to be recognized as a JEEE candidate had to sign a written oath of loyalty to Rezaei.

The fourth major faction consists of conservatives and hardliners who were not supported by either of the top two groups. It is led by Majles deputies Ali Motahari and Hamid Reza Katouzian, two leading critics of Ahmadinejad. Their faction is variously known as Jebheh Montaghedan-e Dolat (JMD, or Government Critics Front) and Jebheh Sedaa-ye Mellat (Voice of the Nation). In addition to these four groups, there are also several smaller ones.

The JMO

The JMO was formed ostensibly because Khamenei urged his supporters to run in the elections as a unified force. The first time that there were public discussions about the founding of the JMO was after the the third nationwide city council elections in the fall of 2006. Ahmadinejad and his supporters had formed a group called Raayeheh Khosh-e Khedmat (RKK, or Sweet Scent of Service). Their refusal to ally the RKK with any of the other conservative and hardline organizations alarmed Khamenei. As I have emphasized repeatedly, in contrast to the view of the Supreme Leader and his circle, Ahmadinejad and his supporters really believed -- and still believe -- that they have vast popular support. Knowing that he still needed Khamenei's favor for the 2009 presidential election, Ahmadinejad invited the representatives of various conservative and hardline factions to discuss the campaign for the Eighth Majles in March 2008. Several meetings took place and a central committee was elected that consisted of Sadegh Mahsouli -- the "billionaire minister," Ahmadinejad's long-time friend and former interior minister -- and Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi, an ally of the president at the time, who represented the RKK; Asadollah Badamchian and Shahabeddin Sadr (a doctor whose qualifications for the upcoming elections were rejected by the Guardian Council), who represented Jebheh Peyrovaan-e Khat-e Emam va Rahbari (Front of Followers of the Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] and Leader [Khamenei]), a coalition of 15 groups allied with the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, which represents the interests of the bazaar; and Hossein Fadaei and Alireza Zakani, two former Guard officers, who respectively led the Guard-linked political organizations Jameiyat-e Eisaargaraan-e Enghelab-e Eslami (Society of Islamic Revolution Devotees) -- known simply as Eisaargaraan (Devotees) -- and Jameiyat-e Rahpooyaan-e Enghlelab-e Eslami (Society of Supporters of Islamic Revolution). They were unable to reach an agreement for the 2008 elections, and the JMO was dissolved.

CampaignPosters5Mehr.jpgEarly last year, the JMO was revived, except without Ahmadinejad's supporters, because they rejected many who, in the aftermath of the 2009 election, were silent or failed to condemn Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi with sufficient vigor. The coalition was revived at the urging of Khamenei, Society of Militant Clergy of Tehran led by Mahdavi Kani, and Society of Teachers of Qom Seminary, led by Mohammad Yazdi. Up until a month ago, its leadership group was known as the 7+8 Committee -- seven members acting as arbitrators and eight representing the various conservative and hardline groups. The JMO has candidates in every district in Iran, but its most important list is for Greater Tehran -- the capital and three nearby towns, Shemiranat, Rey, and Eslamabad.

The list is headed by Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, father-in-law of Khamenei's second son, Mojtaba, followed by Seyyed Mohammad Hassan Aboutorabi Fard, a deputy parliament speaker who effectively represents Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, who is a candidate from Qom. There are only four clerics in the list. The big loser is Jebheh Peyrovaan, which has only three candidates, Deputy Speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar; Mohammad Nabi Habibi, secretary-general of the Islamic Coalition Party); and Badamchain, whereas before Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, the Islamic Coalition Party dominated the conservative and hardline faction.

The most important feature of the list is that it is dominated by Guard- and Basij-linked candidates: Zakani, Fadaei, Elias Naderan, Masoud Mir Kazemi, Esmail Kosari, Parviz Sarvari, Mojtaba Rahmandoost, Hossein Nejabat, Hossein Mozaffar, Ahmad Tavakkoli, and Mohammad Nabi Roodaki are all former Guard officers. Aboutorabi Fard and another cleric candidate, Mohammad Hassan Ebrahimi, have been active in the armed forces ever since the 1979 Revolution. Five women are among the 30 candidates, two of whom, Zohreh Elahian and Fatemeh Rahbar, are former Basij university students. Another candidate, Mehrdad Bazrpash, a former ally of Ahmadinejad, is also a former Basij militia member at Sharif University. Thus, 16 out of 30 are linked with the Guards and Basij. The JMO's list in other cities and town is dominated even more strongly by Guard and Basij members. In effect, under the nominal leadership of Mahdavi Kani and Yazdi, the Revolutionary Guards are trying to dominate the Majles.

The Guard candidates in the Greater Tehran district have been heavily promoting Haddad Adel -- see here, here, here, and here for four examples from just the past few days. Basij commander Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, for instance, declared that it will bring dishonor to Khamenei if Haddad Adel does not receive the highest number of votes in Tehran. The Guards are thus making the elections in Tehran an indirect referendum on Khamenei.

The JPEE

The JPEE was formally founded on July 26, 2011, although speculation about its formation began much earlier. Morteza Agha Tehrani, who used to be the "morality teacher" of Ahmadinejad's cabinet, is its secretary-general, while Ahmadinejad's former Minister of Health Kamran Baqeri Lankarani is its spokesman. The main financial backer of the JPEE is Mahsouli. The JPEE claims that its members are the true principlists. Although Mesbah Yazdi has declared that he is not the leader of the JPEE, no one believes him. Other prominent JPEE members include Gholam Hossein Elham, currently Ahmadinejad's adviser for legal affairs, and hardline clerics Hamid Rasaei and Ruhollah Hosseinian, the latter of whom has been accused of involvement in the infamous Chain Murders in the 1990s. Hassan Abbasi, who has presented himself as the leading theoretician among Iran's hardliners, supports the group.

CampaignPosters2Mehr.jpgThe JPEE has been accused by many of having secret links with the "perverted group" -- Rahim Mashaei and his inner circle; see, for example, here, here, here, and here. Motahari has warned, "If the JPEE takes control of the country, Iran will be destroyed. The views of the JPEE are very dangerous. It is a tool in the hands of Ahmadinejad and Rahim Mashaei." Fadaei has said that 600 candidates of the "perverted group" were rejected by the Guardian Council.

Quietly, Mesbah has set up many other organizations in order to spread his influence. The Haghani Seminary in Qom used to be his base of power, and many of its graduates have held important positions within the political system, including five out of six intelligence ministers after the Revolution. His other power bases include the Baqir ul-Uloom Cultural Foundation, the Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Organization and its alumni organization, the Office for Cultural Research, the Toloo Society, and the Ammar Cultural Headquarters. The magazine Parto Sokhan is published by Mesbah's disciple Ghasem Ravanbakhsh. If the JPEE manages to win a significant number of Majles seats, Mesbah's positions among the hardliners will be strengthened.

Like the JMO, the JPEE has supported candidates in every constituency in the country and has announced a list of 30 candidates for the Greater Tehran district. It includes six of the candidates on the JMO list: Haddad Adel, Mir Kazemi, Fatemeh Alia, Zohreh Tabibzadeh, Kosari, and Alireza Marandi. Other candidates include current hardline Majles deputies, Hosseinian, Rasaei, Mehdi Koochakzadeh, Bijan Nobaveh, and Esmail Kosari. The list, headed by Agha Tehrani, includes at least 12 Guard and Basij candidates and four women. The JPEE published an 80-page bulletin in which it strongly criticized the JMO. It has formed an affiliate group, Hamian-e Mardomi-e JPEE (People's Supporters of the JPEE), for the express purpose of attacking the JMO.

The JEEE

The JEEE was founded almost a year ago and consists of nine small conservative groups that have supported Mohsen Rezaei for the past several years. Its secretary-general is cleric Yadollah Habibi, former head of the armed forces' ideological and political directorate. It has announced candidates in at least 18 provinces, and is promoting a list of 30 candidates for the Greater Tehran district, some of whom are also backed by the JMO and JPEE. The list is headed by Aboutorabi Fard, and includes Motahari, Katouzian, former Higher Education Minister Hassan Ghafouri Fard, and Mohsen Rezaei's brother Omidvar Rezaei. Like the JMO and JPEE list, the JEEE list also includes many former Guard officers. Interestingly, the Guardian Council rejected the qualifications of a clerical JEEE member, Seyyed Mahmoud Alavi, who holds a seat in the Assembly of Experts. How someone can be a member of the body responsible for appointing the Supreme Leader, but unqualified to be a Majles deputy is not clear.

The JMD

This group consists of opponents of Ahmadinejad, both current Majles deputies and others in the regime. In the initial screening of candidates by the Ministry of Interior, their qualifications were rejected, though they were subsequently restored later by the Guardian Council. Significantly overlapping with the JEEE, its list They include JMD leaders Motahari and Katouzian, other legislators such as Ghafouri Fard, Omidvar Rezaei, and Ali Abbaspour, and conservative labor activist Alireza Mahjoob. Aligning himself with the group, leading Ahmadinejad critic Ahmad Tavakoli said, "My spirit is with Sedaa-ye Mellat." Though it attracted wide attention when it announced its formation, the group has not been able to build on its initial publicity and has remained a minor factor in the elections. It is supporting 16 candidates for the Greater Tehran district. The group has announced that although it opposes the Ahmadinejad administration, it will not form a coalition with those candidates who are nominally reformist.

Motahari has long been a controversial figure. At one time a radical conservative, he continuously attacked the reformists and former President Mohammad Khatami when he was in office. He has moderated his views over the years, becoming a strong critic of Ahmadinejad. Motahari has even implicitly rejected Velaayat-e Faghih, the doctrine of rule by the Islamic jurist by which Khamenei wields dictatorial power, saying, "Velaayat-e Faghih cannot violate freedom."

CampaignPosters3Mehr.jpgOther groups

There are over 230 political groups altogether, many of which exist only on paper or consist of a few like-minded friends and colleagues. Eighteen different groups are supported lists of candidates for Tehran. Although one is supposedly "reformist," in fact all are composed of conservatives and hardliners. One of the better-known ones is the Coalition of Independent Candidates, which is supporting several otherwise unaligned candidates, as its name suggests, as well as candidates listed by other major groups. The Great Coalition of the Principlists was backing 30 Tehran candidates, but announced that it had dissolved itself because it did not want Mahdavi Kani and Yazdi to worry about the elections.

Turnout

What the extent of the turnout for the elections will be is anyone's guess. Some analysts, including hardliners, predict a turnout of 15-17 percent of eligible voters in Tehran, though even that may be optimistic. The turnout in smaller cities, towns, and villages may be higher, as local political issues and demographic factors, including ethnic and family rivalries, play a relatively greater role.

To summarize, from the perspective of the universally accepted criteria for democratic elections, the upcoming Majles vote will be a sham. Despite this, due to the deepening fissures in the ranks of the conservatives and hardliners, and in particular between the supporters of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, these elections are still important and will have a significant influence on political developments in Iran, at least between now and the next presidential election, which will take place in June 2013.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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