Iran opens new parliament packed with Rouhani critics

The tough road ahead of President Hassan Rouhani in the upcoming closing year of his term is expected to be made even even bumpier by the new ultraconservative legislature.

al-monitor Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (in the front center, hand to chest) attends the first official session of the 11th Iranian parliament in Tehran, Iran, May 27, 2020.  Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

May 27, 2020

Iran’s 11th parliament officially began its mandate May 27 following a ceremony attended by many of the country's most powerful men, including moderate President Hassan Rouhani, Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi and several high-ranking military commanders.

In a message read by his representative, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei envisioned the pathway ahead of the new lawmakers, urging them to refrain from “sideshows” and instead unite to uproot corruption and pursue the “resistance economy,” a strategy Khamenei has been promoting in recent years to fight off the US “maximum pressure” policy.

Khamenei’s message also stressed the parliament’s independence as the top decision-making body where lawmakers should enjoy “the right to impeach.” The supreme leader, however, has been accused of last-minute interference in matters of high sensitivity, nipping in the bud legislation taken up by lawmakers in various parliaments. In November, Iranian parliamentarians began a push to effectively cancel the government’s contentious fuel subsidy plan that triggered days of unprecedented, deadly unrest nationwide. Khamenei ordered the lawmakers to back down and let the government press ahead with the controversial scheme. Months later, when a group of the parliamentarians presented a plan to impeach the interior minister, whom they accused of orchestrating the same deadly crackdown, the supreme leader once again intervened. The impeachment project was aborted.

The inauguration ceremony was addressed by Rouhani, who will have to leave office in August 2021. Rouhani called on the new assembly to prioritize national interests over partisanship and urged cooperation in the war against “US sanctions and provocations.” Rouhani was talking to a body of ultraconservatives who in February swept the seats in a one-sided race facilitated by the candidate vetting body, the Guardian Council, which had barred almost all their Reformist rivals.

To pass bills in the previous parliament, the Rouhani administration faced near-zero resistance as moderate and Reformist members were in full control. The parliamentarians, as a result, were granted by critics the pejorative moniker of “government advocates” rather than people’s representatives. But “this parliament will not act as a government representative,” the oldest member of the new legislative body, Reza Taghavi, made clear to Rouhani and his team in the opening ceremony.

A significant number of the new parliamentarians have taken pride in their anti-engagement approach on a platform of hostile rhetoric against the Iran nuclear deal that had been negotiated by Rouhani's government. Following an unofficial directive from the supreme leader, that accord was quickly passed in the ninth parliament, which was controlled by the camp known for its anti-West agenda, and which now again holds the absolute majority in the new assembly.

The new lawmakers fought a bitter, public battle over the speakership, but former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf — who came in first in votes for Tehran's parliament seats and has been an archenemy of Rouhani — appeared to have an easy path to the post. A conservative faction of 240 legislators gave 166 votes to Ghalibaf, 57 to Hamidreza Hajbabayee, five to Mostafa Mirsalim and two to Hassan Norouzi, according to the Tehran Times. It appears that Ghalibaf's election as speaker by the full, 290-seat parliament will be a mere formality.

Mirsalim had vowed not to give up in the race until the end, once again drawing attention to old corruption allegations involving Ghalibaf, which remain unaddressed by the judiciary but have been haunting him for years. Although Mirsalim did poorly in the faction's vote for speaker, his tweet may herald fierce infighting and raucous debates ahead for a politically like-minded yet deeply divided legislature.

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