On Friday, the people of Iran vote in two crucial elections that will help define if President Hassan Rouhani will be able to roll back the hard-line opposition headed by the ageing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and so decide the fate of the Islamic Republic of Iran for many years to come.
Rouhani is under pressure from both the conservative establishment, who accuse him of selling out the 1979 Islamic Revolution through reaching out to the international community and allowing too much openness, but also from the liberal bloc whom Rouhani has greatly disappointed by not introducing any major reforms.
For most of his presidency Rouhani has been focused on external affairs as he struggled to win last year’s nuclear deal with the international community. He is hoping that the end of sanctions will bring an economic boost that will renew his credibility with the liberals.
Unfortunately for Rouhani, most of the incoming billions are still only contracts and there has not been enough time for anything to happen on the ground, so the foreign investment has not yet had time to trickle out into the economy at large.
The liberals are not a significant bloc in parliament or the power establishment, but they are a large number of voters. They were disenfranchised in the 2013 presidential elections when their leader, the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was rejected by the Council of Guardians as a suitable candidate, but Rafsanjani asked his followers to vote for Rouhani, helping him to eventual victory. This constituency feels that Rouhani has failed them and one of his important tasks is to reassure them.
But Rouhani’s main struggle is with the hard-line conservatives. The voting tomorrow is for both the 290-seat parliament, which will serve for four years, and the 88-member Assembly of Experts, which has an eight-year term and is tasked with selecting the next Supreme Leader. The current leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 76 and ailing, so the Assembly of Experts about to be elected will probably select his successor.
The position of the Supreme Leader has become steadily more powerful over the decades, and under Khamenei it has become the centre of ultimate power in Iran, in alliance with the very powerful Revolutionary Guards.
Iran commentator Ulrich von Schwerin, writing in Qantara, quotes Iranian political analyst Fathollah-Nejad pointing out that the hardliners are no longer dependent on the Shiite clergy and religious establishment.
“Many clerics may sympathise with the reformists, but the real power lies with the Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards,” Fathollah-Nejad says, adding that Khamenei was behind the disqualification of Hojatoleslam Hassan Khomeini, who has an impeccable pedigree as the grandson of the much venerated founder of the Iranian Islamic republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The 43-year-old cleric is also a moderate who is a supporter of Rouhani and Rafsanjani.
Rouhani and Rafsanjani aspired to gain control of the Assembly of Experts, along with the young Khomeini, as they sought to change the direction of the Iranian state by getting a less hard-line Supreme Leader when the time comes.
But the fiercely conservative Council of Guardians, which vets all candidates for office in Iran’s highly controlled electoral system, made sure that he was not invited to sit the required exam that would have allowed him to be considered for election, despite his already having won the required credentials from the required religious authorities.
It has not been easy for Iranians to understand the choices available to them in tomorrow’s elections, as the publicity for the various lists have only started to emerge recently. Qualified candidates have been slowly revealing their affiliations by appearing on different groups’ and supporters’ lists, reports Camelia Entekhabifard in Al Ahram Weekly.
She goes on to observe that a merger between semi-reformer and semi-moderate candidates has been one of the most significant moves in building a solid platform against the hardliners who are want to take over the parliament in the elections.
When it comes to the elections for the Assembly of Experts, Entekhabifard saw lists bearing pictures of Rouhani and Rafsanjani as being the most popular ones, and it seems likely that even if their bloc does not fare well after the numerous rejections by the Council of Guardians, at least the two leaders are likely to become members of the Assembly of Experts.
The scale of the reforms needed to roll back the deep state are illustrated by how the original 12-man Council of Guardians has evolved into a nationwide apparatus with offices in every one of Iran’s electoral districts, and it has an extensive nationwide staff that vets candidates on a local basis, interviewing neighbours and relatives of erstwhile candidates and asking about the piety, religious habits, domestic life and so on.
During a recent visit to Iran, Robert Dreyfuss observed that this vast apparatus evolved during the Ahmadinejad years as a mechanism to control the reformers and anyone who opposes the hard-line conservatives, and has been immune to any of Rouhani’s efforts to reduce its power because it enjoys the protection of Khamenei.