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Opinion | New Parliament Set for Faceoff with Ahmadinejad

by TINA AMINI

25 Jun 2012 18:16Comments

But could president forge an alliance with Majles Speaker Larijani on nuclear issue?

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Tina Amini is a pen name for an analyst who specializes in Iranian elections. She divides her time between the United States and Iran.
[ opinion ] As the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 conclude in Moscow, the makeup of the Islamic Republic's Ninth Majles is becoming more clear. The parliament's composition may well influence the course of the negotiations by making Iran's sole nuclear arbiter, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, willing to engage with the P5+1 countries to an extent that he has thus far been unwilling to go.

Undoubtedly, Khamenei looked forward to a Ninth Majles full of subservient yes-men, but that is not what transpired. The Rahrovan-e Velaayat (Followers of the Ruling of the Supreme Jurisprudent) faction, which was organized soon after the parliamentary runoff elections last month, comprises more than 170 moderate conservative deputies out of 288 legislators, and is by far the largest faction in the Ninth Majles. Several deputies representing religious minority groups have also joined the Rahrovan-e Velaayat. With a clear majority, the faction was able to reelect Ali Larijani, once Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, to a second term as Majles speaker.

During the last parliament, there was growing tension between Ahmadinejad and both Khamenei and the conservative majority in the Majles. For all of the seventh and most of the eighth parliaments, Khamenei backed Ahmadinejad, making it difficult for the conservatives to confront the president over a number of issues on which there was deep disagreement. Although Khamenei eventually withdrew that support, he still discouraged open confrontation between parliament and president, as it would have reflected on the crucial backing he provided Ahmadinejad in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 election. The result was growing schisms within the conservative camp and hard feelings on the part of the moderate conservatives, who felt stymied by Khamenei.

It will now be easier for Larijani to express the dominant Majles faction's opposition to Ahmadinejad's policies and practices, even if it means not fulfilling Khamenei's expectations. Although both Larijani and the Rahrovan-e Velaayat will try to avoid overt differences with the Supreme Leader, the tension between the speaker's camp and Ahmadinejad will almost certainly increase. Further confrontational moves by the parliament toward the administration would undermine Khamenei, who recently told the deputies that the Ninth Majles should not be routinely critical of the executive branch.

Larijani has had the strong support of many of Iran's most influential clerics, and he stood for election as a representative from the city of Qom, the center of the country's rohaniyat (clerical establishment). The clerics and other conservative groups within the regime also supported the United Front of Principlists, a coalition of conservative parliamentary candidates; with approximately 126 Majles deputies, the United Front is easily the largest group within the Rahrovan-e Velaayat. That support led to the defeat of the neo-conservative Stability Front faction, founded by Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, a hardline cleric close to Khamenei. This preference of the rohaniyat for the Rahrovan-e Velaayat, which is capable of challenging Ahmadinejad, cannot be lost on the Supreme Leader.

814020_orig.jpgAs Majles speaker, Khamenei would have wanted Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, the father-in-law of his son, who was backed by the Stability Front. As speaker in the Seventh Majles, Haddad Adel unhesitatingly implemented all of the his directives. Haddad Adel and his supporters believe that the nezaam (the political system) is defined by the Supreme Leader and any open confrontation by the parliament with Ahmadinejad would be harmful to Khamenei's image. His Stability Front allies include neo-conservatives who are staunch Khamenei supporters, backers of Ahmadinejad's government, and Revolutionary Guard officers who are prepared go to extremes to maintain their grip on power and would, if given the chance, eliminate all of their opponents -- including former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the reformists, and even conservatives who have been linked with the "sedition," the regime's catchphrase for the Green Movement. Indeed, the Stability Front disparaged Larijani for his silence during the postelection turmoil in 2009.

Khamenei's support for the Stability Front is its most valuable asset. The faction comprises around two dozen deputies who were on its candidates' list along with those of two other other small groups, Rahpooyan and Isargaran, which joined in supporting Haddad Adel's bid for the speakership. While these two groups have differences with the Stability Front, it is very likely that they will form an ongoing alliance with it in the Ninth Majles, though they will still be greatly outnumbered by the Rahrovan-e Velaayat. Outspoken Tehran representative Ali Motahari will also form a parliamentary faction that may ally with the large number of independent candidates as well as the nine so-called reformists who made it into the Ninth Majles.

As result of Khamenei's loss of support among the rohaniyat and the traditional conservatives, Rafsanjani, who heads the Expediency Discernment Council, is regaining influence. He has been holding frequent council sessions and making many media appearances. He stated recently that the United States has the upper hand in Iran's nuclear negotiations and that resumption of ties with the Western superpower is indispensable for Iran.

Surprisingly, Ahmadinejad began attending Expediency Council sessions after three years of ignoring them. The president is well aware that the Supreme Leader will make every effort to marginalize him as he marginalized the reformists following the end of Mohammad Khatami's presidency. With the largest parliamentary faction opposed to him as well, Ahmadinejad has every motivation to try to forge an alliance with Rafsanjani. Although Ahmadinejad may not share Rafsanjani's belief in the normalization of ties with the United States and bringing an end to the nuclear standoff, he may well join in promoting those positions in an attempt to maintain political influence after his term in office ends next year.

As a pragmatic cleric, Rafsanjani has always emphasized the importance of preserving the Islamic Republic at any cost and if that means splitting with Khamenei and embracing erstwhile archenemy Ahmadinejad, he will be willing to do so. As Iran's both nuclear negotiator and speaker, Larijani has been a pragmatist who favors political expediency (maslahat) and moderation over confrontation with the West; he could conceivably align with Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani as well, at least on the nuclear issue. This possibility was highlighted by statements made a day before the runoff by Hojatoleslam Hojjatinia, Khamenei's representative to Khatam ol-Anbiya, the Guards' engineering arm; Hojjatinia reiterated the importance of voting in the second round of the elections and spoke out against Larjiani retaining the post of speaker. He referred to Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani, and Larijani as a triangle of high officials who planned to impose negotiations with the United States on the Supreme Leader, arrogate control over issues relating to Iran's nuclear program and the international sanctions it has prompted, and curtail the Supreme Leader's authority.

Khamenei's plan for the Ninth Majles was self-defeating. He has lost the support of his traditionalist base. While he largely succeeded in isolating Ahmadinejad and eliminating the reformists from the political arena, parliament may not remain obedient to his demands and strains may continue to deepen within the political establishment. With the country's economy in chaos due to international sanctions, he will need to make more concessions on the nuclear program. Time is on the side of the United States and the international community. While Iran will continue to look for ways to buy time, the role of moderate conservatives in weakening Iran's religious leader may help lead to a resolution of the nuclear standoff.

Any opinions expressed are the author's own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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