Will Iran’s next election ‘reconfigure political landscape’?


Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s hardliners may want to sideline President Hassan Rouhani as May’s elections approach, but getting there is risky, according to a prominent analyst.

Traditionally, Iran’s political sphere divided into three competing ideologies: pragmatists, reformists and hard-liners, notes Northwestern University’s Saeid Golkar, a senior fellow on Iran Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and a consultant senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. But since 2013, these political groups have been reconfigured into two diametrically opposed factions, he writes for World Politics Review:

  • The interactionist bloc consists of reformists, pragmatists—that is, modern conservatives—and traditional conservatives, who supported Rouhani and former presidents like the late Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Their power is concentrated in the administration and state bureaucracy.
  • Meanwhile, conflictualists are hard-line conservatives, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the powerful Guardian Council that vets all election candidates, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij militia. 

“The future path of the Islamic Republic is deeply connected to the upcoming presidential election and the eventual succession of the supreme leader,” Golkar adds. “If conflictualists take control of both positions, Iran will increasingly go down the path to securitization, while the interactionists can move Iran toward normalization. The clock is ticking.”

“[T]he growing opposition emerging to his government and the mounting (and officially sanctioned) pressure he now faces mean that Rouhani’s political victory is no longer a sure thing. In other words, having staked his political credibility on the inevitable benefits of a nuclear bargain with the West, Iran’s president might yet become its most high-profile casualty,” analyst Ilan Berman writes for Foreign Affairs:

Absent a major political upset, Rouhani is still likely to secure a second term this spring, if only because of a lack of truly popular alternatives. …But the growing opposition emerging to his government and the mounting (and officially sanctioned) pressure he now faces mean that Rouhani’s political victory is no longer a sure thing.

Despite Rouhani’s promise to improve Iran’s lamentable human rights record, things have hardly changed, notes Farhad Rezaei, a research fellow at Center for Iranian Studies:

According to Amnesty International, in 2015 the number of executions reached 977 people, compared to 743 the year before. Other forms of persecution and harassment have also increased. The statistics for the first half of 2016 seem to be even worse. On July 29, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, an independent institution monitoring human rights in Iran [supported by the National Endowment for Democracy], reported 386 executions in 2016 so far.

Observers are concerned that Iran and its proxies will jeopardize efforts to stabilize Syria and Iraq in the wake of the Islamic State’s defeat, says Hamdi Malik, a researcher at the London-based Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMER):

The wars raging in Syria and Yemen provide a suitable environment for these forces to expand and play an important role in preserving the Islamic regime in Iran in the future. Based on their ideology, these forces are ready to play any military role the Iranian leadership assigns to them. This may include moving toward Yemen, confronting Saudi forces or Israelis in the Golan Heights, or even attacking Turkish forces in Iraq.

If forced to accept Rouhani for another term, the least Khamenei expects is to have a completely weakened Rouhani who won’t raise any demands and follows his orders, says analyst Heshmat Alavi. But Khamenei faces obstacles in his path to securing complete control over all aspects of his regime, he writes:

  • First, the probability of a social outburst transforming into nationwide uprisings would be no less than a nightmare for him. If such a threat did not exist, rest assured Khamenei would have disqualified Rouhani through the Guardian Council and rid himself of this problem.
  • Second, Khamenei also has major reservations about the huge rifts existing within his own faction, vivid through the fact that his camp has not been able to select and support a single candidate for the elections. If Khamenei is unable to convince the hardliners to rally behind one candidate, he can assume the election lost beforehand.
  • Third, all said and done, who is the one figure Khamenei can select to have his camp rally behind? Does such a person even exist in Iran today who can bring an end to the long-lasting divisions among the so-called hardliners?

Kianoush Ramezani

“Unlike Western democracies, there are no real ‘political parties’ in Iran,” Alavi adds. “Despite all the brouhaha in the media about ‘moderates’ or ‘reformists’ facing off against ‘hardliners,’ they are all part of one system loyal to one leader, and are only considered members of different factions within this one system. Their only difference hovers over how to maintain their dictatorial regime in power.”

Khamenei’s obsession with the West’s ideological contamination of Iran was evident again in a speech on March 19 marking the birth of the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, Fatima Zahra, when Khamenei blasted gender equality as a “Zionist plot” aimed at corrupting women’s role in society, writes RFE/RL’s Golnaz Esfandiari.

Iran’s paramilitary basij are playing an increasing role in Syria’s civil war, notes Ahmad Majidyar, Fellow and Director of the IranObserved Project at The Middle East Institute.


The Basij (left) has three levels of membership: the Active Basij, Special Basij and Honouree Guardsmen (IRGC), with the upper echelon of these units being paid a salary of $400 per day, which exceeds that of a teacher, one analyst observes. But even with some rank and file members not exactly receiving a salary, there are plenty of perks that go with the job, especially those in the form of social mobility.

Qasem Soleimani (right), the head of Iran’s Quds Force, recently met with top military officials in the Iranian capital in a bid to explore ways to better assist the Houthis, the Washington Post reports.

These are some of the reasons why Iran poses the “most significant threat” in the Middle East, according to the top U.S. military commander in the region.

“Iran fosters instability by funding and promoting a threat network that employs provocation, violence, and covert arms transfers that serve as the stimulants for a range of conflicts across the region,” said U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Joseph Votel.

Although the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program is working, the United States has largely been unable or unwilling to deter Iran’s incremental extension of regional power and threshold testing in the Middle East, CSIS adds:

A new report by the International Security Program at CSIS, “Deterring Iran After the Nuclear Deal,” seeks to better understand and analyze Iran’s strategy, motivations, and military and paramilitary development; explores a set of policy pathways for the United States to counter challenges from Iran; and provides a recommended Iran deterrence strategy for the Trump Administration and U.S. Congress to consider.

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