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With election rivals barred, Iran’s hard-liners resort to infighting

Less than a week to Iran’s parliamentary elections, the country’s hard-liners have yet to reach consensus before finalizing a list of endorsed candidates.

The race for the Islamic Republic’s 11th parliament is likely to turn into one of the most peculiar competitions ever, as most of the hopefuls fall under one political umbrella, with the rival side effectively pushed aside from the game.

After being swept away due to a widespread purge by the vetting body known as the Guardian Council, Iran’s Reformist camp initially announced reluctance to issue a list of candidates for such key constituencies as the capital, Tehran, and the central city of Isfahan.

The decision was made following a Feb. 4 meeting of the Reformist Camp’s Policymaking Supreme Council chaired by Mohammad Reza Aref, a senior Reformist politician who won the first seat in Tehran in the previous polls and earned the title of the parliament majority leader. Under past tradition, a selected group of prominent Reformist candidates would have been proposed to voters by Mohammad Khatami — the camp’s leader and former president (1997-2005) — whose message of approval has often sparked a nationwide wave of support behind the endorsed hopefuls.

Despite the initial unwillingness and after days of deliberations, the top Reformist council released Feb. 15 a finalized list of 30 for the Tehran constituency from among the limited options it was left with. The alliance is led by Majid Ansari, a former deputy to Khatami and a current member of the Expediency Council. The Executives of Construction Party — another key pro-Reform group affiliated with the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — issued a different grouping, but one that still has Ansari on the top.

Signs of deeper division were more obvious in the other front, where unlike Reformists, the conservatives are dealing with a crisis of overpopulation. The long list of candidates has, indeed, stirred up tough rivalries among different sectors of the camp. SHANA, a Persian acronym standing for the “Council for the Coalition of Revolutionary Forces,” as the core decision-making committee of the conservative camp issued the names of the selected candidates Feb. 10. Topping the list was Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a powerful politician, who after three failed attempts in previous presidential elections, appears to be aspiring to become Iran’s next parliament speaker. Unexpectedly, the SHANA alliance offered no room to hard-line candidates affiliated with ultraconservative cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi. 

The SHANA list categorized the candidates into veterans, women, clerics and young people. Still, the absence of such young candidates as Vahid Yaminpour sparked criticism. Yaminpour is affiliated with the Front of the Islamic Revolution Stability (known by its Persian name Paydari). The group is seen as the conservative camp’s most fundamentalist faction, whose rift with SHANA had already been laid bare in the preliminary debate on the endorsements.

SHANA’s most influential figures such as former parliament speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel and former Tehran city council chief Mehdi Chamran appeared to have openly disregarded the candidates linked with Paydari.

However, even Ghalibaf announced in a tweet his disapproval of the SHANA list. His close aide Mohammad Saleh Meftah also dismissed the selection, which, in his view, failed to include not only young revolutionaries but also economic concerns. “The names do not address the expectations, and let’s not forget that Ghalibaf is the only one who can be the axis for a fresh list with revolutionary ideals.” Meftah, who is the editor of the pro-Ghalibaf digital news outlet Farda News, said he believes that SHANA has named few candidates with an economic specialization.

And Ghalibaf’s tweet may have eventually worked, as SHANA revised the names. Yet the change was too little to persuade the Paydari hard-liners, who dug in their heels and came out with their own list that excluded Ghalibaf. Shana now seems to have begun to understand that it is no longer widely recognized as the leading actor because it failed to rally camp members behind the flag, including in recent presidential, parliamentary and city council elections. This disappointing performance could now even sideline the traditional layers of the camp, opening up the path to a generation of younger faces with a more uncompromising approach compared with their forerunners.

But that’s not where the pre-election strife among the conservatives comes to an end. A group of candidates affiliated with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has entered the battle as the People’s Coalition. The faction’s Feb. 10 statement lent generous praise to the performance of the two Ahmadinejad Cabinets (2005-2013). Nevertheless, only three days later an Ahmadinejad adviser put closure to speculation by declaring that the ex-president has no intention of endorsing any individual candidate or alliance.

Ghalibaf — surveying all these parameters at play as well as the absence of influential rivals such as sitting parliament Speaker Ali Larijani — seems to be placing all his concentration on a selection of the most hard-line members of the camp, seeing this as the only way for him to take the helm of parliament. 

All in all, given the hard-hitting removal of their rival Reformists, the conservatives seem to feel that there is no threat necessitating the formation of powerful hard-line coalitions or even to make sacrifices to one another. The race is, therefore, expected to be reduced to an internal tug of war merely involving the multiple hard-line factions jostling for a greater share of seats and influence in the legislative body.