Egyptian Commentary




[Issue 16: 8 June 04]

The power shift within Iran's rightwing
Ahmad Mneisi

A slow shift is taking place in Iran's political landscape, just as the country is adjusting to the outcome of the legislative elections held last February. The elections gave the conservatives control of the parliament, or Majlis, reversing the rise of the reformist current.

The first Majlis session, held on 29 May 2004, saw Adel Haddad elected as Majlis speaker. The election of Haddad, a leading technocrat and conservative, is a sign of Iran's changed political scene. This is the first time that the post of Majlis speaker went, with conservative blessing, to a non-cleric.

The choice of Haddad emphasizes the dynamism of Iran's political scene. Profound changes have taken place since the Islamic revolution 0f 1979. The changes varied in their scope and impact from time to time, with new currents appearing and others fading away. Occasionally, however, the changes have negative consequences. This has been particularly true when certain currents were sidelined as others assumed monopoly of decision making.

Two significant changes

Two important changes are noteworthy. The first happened right after the success of the revolution and resulted in the ouster of political currents opposed to the idea of the Islamic Republic. The other was the metamorphosis within the currents of the revolutionary clerics that monopolized the revolution. These currents, while unanimous on the idea of a theological state and united under the umbrella of one party, the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), differed on a number of issues, such as the extent to which religion is to take hold of political life (the Velayet-e Faqih debate).

This difference in opinion led to the polarization of two wings within the IRP, one (rightwing) calling for the pursuit of a pragmatic policy aimed to consolidate the achievements of the revolution, the other (leftwing) focusing on exporting the revolution and calling for the state's monopoly over the economy. The divisions between the two wings led to the IRP dissolution in 1987, although under the charismatic rule of Ayatollah Khomeini, the frictions between the two wings remained low-key.

The leftist camp was made up of the Militant Clerics League (Rouhanioun), as well as the Revolution's Mujahidin. The rightwing camp was made up of the Militant Clerics Association (Rouhaniat), the League of the Teachers of the Qom Seminaries, and the Islamic Coalition Association. The differentiation that took place on the political scene led to the emergence of a rightwing current with an open-minded outlook, as opposed to the close-mindedness of the conventional rightwing. The open-minded current found its voice in the Executives of Construction Party (ECP) associated with former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The latter group embraced the openness characterizing Iranian domestic and foreign policy during Rasanjani's time. This was the first division that took place in the ranks of the Iranian right.

A more important change

The election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, with an ambitious reformist program and at the expense of his rival Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, a leading conservative, brought along a new change. Khatami's election led to the emergence of two camps on the political scene. One was the conservative camp (rightwing), including the same rightwing forces known during the Rafsanjani era. The other was the reformist camp which included, along with the aforementioned leftist forces, all the other pro-openness forces. The mainstay of this camp was the Islamic Participation Front (IPF), formed ahead of Khatami's election. The latter camp was often referred to as the new left, because of its openness and its conformity with the principles of the Islamic system. The ECP, which at Rafsanjani's time was called the new right, joined Khatami's reformist alliance.

Khatami's landslide victory in the 1997 elections ushered in a new era in Iranian politics, one dominated by the reformist camp. This led to the erosion of rightwing control of state institutions. The 2000 elections confirmed this trend, with the reformists scoring a clear victory. Khatami secured a second term in the 2001 elections.

Since that time, the reformist current has fell on hard times. The disarray was particularly visible before the recent Majlis elections. The IPF boycotted the elections while other reformist forces went ahead and took part in the elections.

The reformist current has seen its fortunes dwindle as the moderates in its ranks agreed to contest the elections whereas others, such as the IPF, opted for a boycott. The liberal, nationalist, and ultra-leftist groups, which had been in alliance with the reformists during the 1997 elections, went their own way. Signs of disarray in the ranks of the reformists were evident during the local elections, in which the reformists participated with more than one platform.

The rightwing split

The divisions within the reformist current gave the rightwing a chance to regroup. This regrouping has been achieved because of two main things. One is the developments that occurred in the conservative discourse as it tried to cope with the open-minded ideas put forward by the reformist current. The other is the appearance of a new open-minded breed of rightists under the name of the Developers of Islamic Iran (DII), a group credited for rethinking the traditionally conservative discourse of the right.

Along with the above two factors, a third and no less important factor emerged, which is the deterioration of the reformists' popularity in the Iranian street. The reformists have failed in implementing most of the priorities contained in their political scheme. In particular, they failed to give enough attention to the urgent daily problems of the Iranians, focusing instead on battles concerning issues unrelated to daily life, such as the expansion of the president's power.

As a result, the rightwing alliance swept the February 2003 local elections, which it contested under a unified platform reflecting a degree of cohesion in its ranks. The February 2004 Majlis elections brought a clear win to the rightwing, led by the DII.

Although the DII was instrumental in restoring rightwing control over the Majlis. The emergence of that coalition is likely to cause split in rightwing ranks, between the so-called neo-conservatives of the DII and the conventional rightwing current.

The DII clearly differs in its thinking from the conventional rightwing. Unlike the conventional current, the neo-conservatives do not see the state as an expression of the interests of a certain class. In particular, the neo-conservatives see no reason for clerics to assume key state positions. For them, it is enough that holders of key posts act with clerical blessing.

The recent Majlis elections and the months that followed saw serious signs of division within the rightwing current. One was the exclusion by the neo-fundamentalists of a number of conventional figures from the electoral lists. Among those excluded were Asadollah Badamchian and Islamic Coalition Society Secretary General Habibollah Asgarowaldi.

A dispute surfaced over who's to run for Majlis speaker, with the conventionalists pushing for a cleric and the neo-conservatives pushing for a non-clerical character, such as Adel Haddad. This split within the conservative alliance raises questions over possible revision of the principles of the Islamic regime. Conventional conservatives had in the past insisted on preserving the revolutionary legacy of the Islamic regime.

Future party landscape

The conservative rightwing seems to remain united through the alliance among the League of Teachers of the Qom Seminaries, the Militant Clergy Association (Rouhaniat), and the Islamic Coalition Association (ICA). But the solidity of the alliance is in question. The ICA (the secretary general of which has been excluded form the conservative lists in the parliamentary elections) represents the Bazaar political institution and has yet to come to terms with the neo-conservatives. The ICA has conventionally expressed the alliance between business and the clergyman, the alliance on which the rightwing current was founded.

As things stand, the rightwing camp, if not exactly divided, is heading toward a split, one that may have a lasting impact on Iran's political map. Change may happen in a number of ways:

1. Division in the ranks of the rightwing alliance may lead to the formation of a centrist religious party with a nucleus of the neo-conservatives who did well in the parliamentary elections. Such a party may drift further apart from the conventional rightwing, and the latter may end up as a marginal force at the extreme right of the political landscape. Such a party would also be closest to the ECP of former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The two parties, along with the ICA, may end up forming a broadly-based centrist movement.
2. The changes within the rightwing may accelerate the pace of changes within the reformist movement. The latter is likely to split into three currents. The first would be led by the IPF. The second would attract the moderates who decided to contest the recent parliamentary elections. The third would include the nationalist, liberal, and ultra-left groups that reject the formula of the Islamic regime.

The latter current is likely to split further, considering the deep divisions among its groups. These groups, once forced to operate outside any religious cover, would present a major challenge to the Islamic regime, a test of its ability to deal with forces and doctrines that defy the thinking of the Islamic republican regime. While the IPF would become the main rival for the coalition of neo-conservatives, the moderate reformists are close in their approach to the neo-conservatives and may decide to join ranks with them in the future. If this happens, this could prove to be Iran's largest political alliance since the revolution.



©2004 Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) . All rights reserved.