Iran's 2012 Parliamentary Elections: A Political Primer
The Islamic Republic of Iran will soon hold parliamentary elections, its first national election since widespread protests led to a violent crackdown following the 2009 presidential contest. Iranian leaders have described the upcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for March 2, as a critical event for the regime. The factional composition of Iran’s ninth parliament will remain largely unchanged because the regime has excluded candidates outside of an extremely narrow range of conservatives (“principlists”). A complete exploration of Iran’s factional dynamics is beyond the scope of this analysis, but three political groups have a significant stake in this election: supporters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and internal opposition (the Green Movement). Khamenei’s supporters have campaigned aggressively to unite conservatives into a single faction, known as the United Principlist Front (UPF), and have attempted to use their dominant position to marginalize all forms of opposition to the Supreme Leader’s absolute mandate. The UPF has been largely successful in sidelining Ahmadinejad’s core group of supporters, commonly referred to as “the deviant current” (jariyaan-e enheraafi), including the president’s personal advisor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. However, another faction consisting of both former allies and critics of Ahmadinejad emerged in mid-2011 as the primary rival to the UPF. This faction, known as the Islamic Revolution Steadfastness Front (IRSF), has actively distanced itself from the “deviant current” while simultaneously expressing support for the president, leading some to believe that the IRSF is comprised of “crypto-Ahmadinejad” supporters, masking their true affiliation to avoid being labeled “deviant.” The regime has neutralized the Green Movement (GM) and indicated that they will not allow anyone affiliated or sympathetic to the movement to participate in election. As a result, the internal opposition has chosen to boycott the elections in an effort to delegitimize the election and the regime. They will, therefore, play a passive role, but with an equally significant stake in the outcome.
There are real divisions amongst the various shades of principlists, although they are aligned closely ideologically, and their future in the Islamic Republic will be impacted by the outcome of these elections. Ahmadinejad is completing his final term as president and must entrench his supporters in the government before facing potential obscurity after leaving office in 2013. Khamenei is still recovering from a crisis of legitimacy following the 2009 presidential elections and is counting on high voter turnout, minimal conservative infighting, and an absence of public demonstrations to demonstrate that the regime has recovered from the past election. Iran’s parliament has historically been an important arena in which to mobilize support for future presidential candidates. The UPF and IRSF are, in part, jockeying for seats in order to lay the foundation for the 2013 presidential election, when both will likely run separate candidates. Despite the domination of decision-making by the Supreme Leader and, increasingly, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s parliament has also served as a forum for debating and shaping domestic policies. The elections are therefore likely to have important implications for Iranian domestic politics, even if they are extremely unlikely to affect Iran’s foreign policy or to challenge the bases of the regime.
The parliamentary elections will certainly have no impact on Iran’s nuclear program. There is unanimity among the members of the establishment, including the candidates the regime has allowed to stand for parliament, on this issue. Iran’s foreign policy will also be unaffected by this election. Iran’s parliament has a national security and foreign policy committee and constitutionally-granted authority to advise Iran’s diplomatic officials, however, it does not have the power to alter foreign policy in any substantive way. Even if a new parliamentary bloc emerged that opposed the nuclear program, its ability to influence policy on this matter would be close to nil.
The election will thus serve primarily as a referendum on the regime’s domestic policies, particularly the economy, for those Iranians who do choose to participate. Yet it remains unclear whether Iranians will take to the polls en masse or boycott the election in significant numbers, as opposition groups such as the Green Path of Hope Council and a number of pro-Ahmadinejad bloggers have called for. Conversely, the regime recognizes that this election is a symbol of its internal and external legitimacy and has gone to great lengths to encourage participation. The most interesting variable in this election is thus likely to be the degree of popular participation rather than the outcome.
The most significant blocs and power-brokers in the upcoming election are as follows.
Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei
The largest stakeholder in this election is Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Iran’s 2009 protests and the regime’s subsequent violent crackdown badly damaged Khamenei’s legitimacy. Khamenei may view these elections as an opportunity to reestablish authority and reassure his supporters that he is still firmly in control and will continue to guard the ideals of the revolution. He has abandoned the support lent to President Ahmadinejad in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 election, after the controversial president began to assert his authority too aggressively from the Supreme Leader’s perspective. Khamenei has also firmly signaled that he will no longer tolerate reform from within, much less serious dissent, by sidelining the “deviant current,”, and “sedition” (fetneh), supporters of the Green Movement.
Khamenei has taken steps to ensure that any protests, irregularities, or low voter turnout are attributed to the work of “the enemies” (doshmanaan). The Supreme Leader and his Intelligence Minister, Heidar Moslehi, have repeatedly claimed that external forces are plotting against the regime in an effort to subvert the elections, undermine their legitimacy, and foment protest. Khamenei warned attendees at Friday prayers in February that “The authorities should not ignore the conspiracies of the enemies against the elections. Those who do not receive enough votes in the elections should also be aware and should not be fooled like those who did not get any votes in 2009. They should not be deceived... Don't blame the elections, don't help the enemy, and an atmosphere of conflict and hopelessness should not be displayed in the campaign so we can, God willing, have a good election.” This rhetoric is consistent with Khamenei’s previous attempts to link internal dissent to external actors.
Khamenei has also labored to prove that Iran is socially and politically united, and that velayat-e-faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent, the religio-ideological basis for the current regime) is still a resonant and legitimate ideology. To that end, Khamenei’s allies have put much effort into forming a unified front in support of him ahead of the elections. The coalition referred to as the United Principlist Front (UPF) and its 8+7 mechanism, comprised of Khamenei supporters derived from some of the most prominent conservative factions, are particularly important. The composition of the 8+7 mechanism consists of an eight-member executive committee and a seven-member arbitration committee. The eight member committee is comprised of two members each from the Front of the Followers of the Imam and Leader’s Line and the Society of Self-Sacrificers of the Islamic Revolution, both hardline factions loyal to the Supreme Leader and critical of the president. The eight member committee also includes separate representatives for Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. Two representatives of the IRSF were to be represented on the executive committee but they chose not to participate due to disagreements over the 8+7’s composition. The seven-member committee is comprised of two members each from the influential conservative institutions the Combatant Clergy Association (jam’e-ye rouhaaniyat-e mobaarez) and the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers (jam’e-ye modaresin-e howze-ye elmi-ye qom), and the mechanism’s three original, core members: Ali Akbar Velayati, Habib Asghar Owladi, and Gholam Ali Hadad Adel. The core three have longstanding relationships with Khamenei..
The UPF has been extremely vocal in Iran’s state-run media, stressing unity among conservative factions and devotion to the velayat. The IRGC has been actively engaged in this campaign, as demonstrated by IRGC Political Deputy Yadollah Javani’s remarks in October 2011: “People and officials must be aware of the presence of opportunists in the elections and [maintain order] by selecting followers of the path of the velayat.”Furthermore, Khamenei’s supporters have used the UPF as a mechanism to define the criteria for regime loyalty. The group is the unofficial representative of the Supreme Leader in these elections. Thus, by setting strict criteria for membership in the UPF they effectively marginalize those who do not meet their standard, with the implicit approval of Khamenei.
Khamenei has recognized that elections in Iran are always potentially serious threats to the regime. In August 2011 he said “This year we will have elections. Elections in our country are always something of a controversial incident…. Be careful that these challenges do not damage the security of the country.” Statements like these signal his fear that elections could exacerbate discontent within Iran and trigger anti-regime activity similar to 2009. In order to successfully demonstrate regime legitimacy Khamenei must prevent major protests from erupting. He will rely primarily on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to maintain security, as he has done in the past. The IRGC has signaled that it will respond forcefully to any protests that occur during the elections. The recently appointed commander of the IRGC’s Mohammad Rasoul-Allah unit (responsible for greater Tehran) Brigadier General Mohsen Kazemeini warned in February 2012, “We are prepared and will neutralize every type of threat…. [We have] investigated and will implement all of the necessary measures.” Kazemeini made these remarks during “passive defense” exercises staged by IRGC and Basij Forces in Tehran, indicating that the IRGC is actively preparing to confront any internal unrest.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Ahmadinejad has worked to position himself and his supporters as a politically relevant force after the end of his second presidential term in 2013 (Iranian law prevents an incumbent from serving more than two consecutive terms as president). Khamenei and his supporters have for various reasons marginalized Iran’s former presidents, including Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a dominant political force since the revolution’s early years. The recent history of public confrontation between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei may give the president reason to believe that he, too, will inevitably face political marginalization by the Supreme Leader and his supporters. At least one report has suggested that 600 of the approximately 2,000 candidates excluded by the Guardian Council are supporters of Ahmadinejad and affiliated with the “deviant current.” This is consistent with the Guardian Council’s previous mass disqualifications of parliamentary candidates deemed a threat to the Supreme Leader’s authority.
The Islamic Revolution Steadfastness Front (IRSF) may represent Ahmadinejad in the election, in spite of the Guardian Council’s efforts. The IRSF has distanced itself from the “deviant current” and publicly positioned itself against the president. One of its members, however, recently alluded to the group’s true loyalty, stating, “The principal reason for the formation of the IRSF is to protect the discourse of Ahmadinejad…. The IRSF must not regard the discourse of Ahmadinejad, his beliefs and the government, as a diverted government, just because of its concerns with the deviant current. This is a great mistake.” The group also counts several former Ahmadinejad allies among its members, including several advisors and ministers that served in his cabinet, although it should be noted that there are also a number of the president’s critics in the IRSF. Most importantly, the IRSF is unofficially headed by the president’s former spiritual mentor Ayatollah Mohamamd Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and backed financially by his long-time ally Sadegh Mahsouli. The group’s composition and leadership, as well as its member’s candid remarks, suggest that it retains some loyalty to Ahmadinejad despite its outwardly confrontational stance.
The IRSF has refused to participate in the UPF’s early organizational efforts, despite repeated pleas by the UPF’s leadership for the IRSF to be subsumed into the group in order to promote principlist unity. The IRSF complained of the UPF’s composition, objecting specifically to the presence of Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. IRSF supporters recently asserted that their faction is representative of a new political trend in the Islamic Republic, referred to as Idealists (aarmaangeraa), and that competition between the Idealists and the Principlists will replace the old model of reformists versus conservatives in Iran. The IRSF’s attempts to differentiate itself from the UPF and assert its legitimacy among Iran’s conservatives are evidence of the group’s efforts to accumulate political power independent of Khamenei’s core group of supporters. Their ability to gain parliamentary seats without the support of the UPF will determine their near-term ability to autonomously exert power in the political sphere and will impact their prospects of putting forth a competitive presidential candidate in 2013.
The Green Movement/Internal Opposition
The Green Movement opposition that flooded the streets in 2009 is seeking to demonstrate that it still has broad support among Iranians and the capability to influence political behavior. The Green Path of Hope Council (GPHC), affiliated with Green Movement leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi but whose current leadership is unclear (since Karroubi and Mousavi have been under house arrest since 2010), tested this strategy by calling for supporters to stage “silent protests” on February 14. The call produced sporadic gatherings and the regime responded with an increased security presence in Tehran. The opposition is also seeking to undermine the regime’s legitimacy and lay bare the disillusionment among the Iranian populace by deeming the elections illegal and calling for a total boycott. The boycott call takes aim at the Islamic Republic’s narrative of popular participation in elections, historically used by the regime as a means of justifying its authority.
Hardliners within the regime have emphasized their preparedness for dealing with any potential dissent and have been persistent in their warnings to Green Movement supporters. IRGC Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Aziz Jafari notably outlined the criteria for reformist participation in the parliamentary elections in July 2011: “People in reformist currents who have not transgressed the red lines [supported the Green Movement] can naturally partake in political competition…but how successful Mr. Khatami [former reformist president] can be depends on the positions he has.”  Labeling supporters of the Green Movement as seditionists and repeatedly accusing the popular movement as receiving support from foreign agents are both part of a concerted effort by regime conservatives to discredit the movement and green light its repression. 
Given the realities of Iran today, we will be able to assess the strength of the real opposition to the regime in two ways, since they are not being allowed to run candidates even by proxy. The eruption of widespread protests or clashes would indicate that the opposition remains strong and willing to brave the retaliation of an armed and prepared regime. That eventuality seems unlikely. The opposition can also demonstrate its strength, therefore, through weak voter participation—and this approach appears to be its primary strategy. If turnout is, in fact, very low, then the opposition will be able to claim that the regime’s legitimacy is in question and that it was able to persuade Iranians not to take part in farcical elections. If turnout is high, however, then the opposition will be hard-placed to argue for its continued relevance in Iran’s political spectrum
“March elections, the country’s most important polls” Mehr News, October 8th 2011. Available at http://www.mehrnews.com/en/NewsDetail.aspx?pr=s&query=sedition%20&NewsID=1427522.
“Moslehi’s Credible intelligence of the enemies’ election plans,” Mashregh News, February 8, 2012. Available in Persian at http://www.mashreghnews.ir/fa/news/97813/%D8%A7%D8%B7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%AB%D9%82-%D9%85%D8%B5%D9%84%D8%AD%DB%8C-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%87-%D8%AF%D8%B4%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA.
“The Possibility of Change and Development in the 8 + 7,” Mardom Salari Online, August 29, 2011. Available via World News Connection.
“Iran's Conservatives: The Headstrong New Bloc,” Shaul Bakhash, Tehran Bureau, September 12, 2011. Available at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2011/09/irans-conservatives-the-headstrong-new-bloc.html#ixzz1mZ07PjaJ.
NOTE: Javani is no longer the IRGC Political Deputy. He is currently the advisor to the Representative of the Supreme Leader to the IRGC.
“Guide: Iranian parliamentary elections,” BBC, February 27, 2012. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17141030.
“Maximum participation is the strategy of the principlists,” Fars News, February 24, 2012. Available in Persian at http://farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13901204001083.