Iran's Domestic Political Scene and the Nuclear Deal
The Iran Deal and Iran’s Parliament
Iran’s parliament has been fighting with President Hassan Rouhani about its right to approve the nuclear agreement signed on July 14, 2015, mirroring, ironically, the dispute between President Obama and the U.S. Congress over the same issue. Iran’s parliament moved more determinedly than Congress, however, forming a commission to review the deal within a week of its announcement. That commission presented its findings to Parliament on October 4. The agreement will likely pass in some form, but the fight over its review has allowed Rouhani’s conservative opponents to disrupt the victory lap he began following the agreement. It has also given them an issue around which to try to unify in advance of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. The agreement has thus so far reinvigorated Rouhani’s foes rather than strengthening the Iranian president as the White House and U.S. advocates of the deal had suggested.
Many conservative members of parliament opposed the nuclear negotiations with the U.S. early on and the specifics of the deal when they emerged. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s public defense of the negotiations and the negotiating team, however, circumscribed their attacks on Rouhani, the negotiators, and the deal itself. Khamenei also implicitly reprimanded a leading conservative commentator for going too far in condemning the deal in the Supreme Leader’s name. Nonetheless, he has ostentatiously refused to approve or disapprove of the agreement, which has encouraged Rouhani’s opponents to find ways of attacking it that might be acceptable to Khamenei.
The argument over whether or not parliament should review the deal presented an ideal opportunity, and a faction of the parliamentary conservatives, who call themselves Principlists, seized on it. They assailed Rouhani for trying to prevent them from voting on the deal and insisted on their right and duty to do so. The Supreme Leader weighed in directly on the side of the Principlists, openly rebuking Rouhani in the process. The review commission thus became a Supreme Leader-approved vehicle for cutting Rouhani down to size.
The head of the review commission is an ambitious parliamentarian generally unknown to Western audiences named Ali Reza Zakani. His appointment to that position by Parliament is noteworthy. He is not the chairman of the relevant parliamentary committee, the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission (NSFP). (Alaeddin Boroujerdi holds that post, but has only a regular seat on the review panel. The most vocal senior member of the NFSP, Esmail Kowsari, also joined the review commission as a normal member. ) So who is Zakani and why was he given such a plum opportunity to build a national reputation as the Principlist opponent of Rouhani on the most prominent issue of Rouhani’s presidency? The answer probably lies in Zakani’s combination of two traits the Principlists will need in the 2016 and 2017 elections: aggressiveness and the ability to form political coalitions rapidly.
Who is Ali Reza Zakani?
Zakani was born in 1965 in a relatively poor area of Tehran. He joined a paramilitary organization called the Irregular Warfare Headquarters shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Iran at the age of 16. He then became a deputy intelligence commander in the 27th Mohammad Rasoul Allah Division, which Kowsari later commanded, and was reportedly injured six times in the course of more than 15 operations. Zakani retained his paramilitary roots after the war as he pursued higher education, eventually managing all university student Basij groups throughout Tehran province. He earned his doctorate in nuclear medicine in 2004, but then leapt directly into national politics.
Zakani’s initial foray into parliamentary politics as a member of the Islamic Iran Developers’ Coalition (IIDC) in 2004 offers insight into the troubled state of the Iranian conservative bloc at that time. The conservatives had lost badly in the 1997 presidential elections that brought the reformist Mohammad Khatami to power. The IIDC was formed as part of the conservatives’ response to that defeat, which included renaming themselves “Principlists” to highlight their loyalty to the foundational values of the Islamic Republic in contrast to the Reformists, whom they portrayed as abandoning the revolution.
The IIDC focused on economic reform and social justice, hoping to build a solid electoral basis on meat-and-potatoes rather than ideological or religious issues. Zakani played up his humble upbringing, and made fighting corruption a hallmark of his parliamentary run. A number of other Principlist organizations also coalesced around Iran-Iraq War veterans, a fact that has continuously worked in Zakani’s favor. The IIDC enjoyed its initial success in local elections in 2003, and played a major role in helping the conservatives to victory in the 2004 parliamentary elections that brought Zakani into the Parliament. Principlist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of course, won the presidency in 2005, apparently cementing the principlists’ ascendance.
The IIDC was the first of several ‘modernist principlist’ movements with which Zakani would align himself. The emergence of a “modernist movement” within the Principlist front, as the IIDC described itself in a 2005 statement, was an attempt to regain popularity by separating from the extreme hardline factions comprising the “traditional movement” such as the Front of the Followers of the Line of the Imam. The modernist Principlists took a marginally more relaxed stance on moral issues compared to the traditionalist Principlists. But the differences between the two factions throughout Zakani’s political career have been more a matter of “factional allegiances or lack thereof” than of major ideological differences.  Political coalitions often form in Iranian politics for the purposes of winning elections only to fall apart soon thereafter, and Zakani’s political experience has been no exception. He helped found a new Principlist group called the Pathseekers of the Islamic Revolution in 2008, in fact, becoming its secretary-general.
The absence of genuine ideological differences among the fractious Principlist organizations places greater importance on personal and patronage ties to keep sub-groups together. Zakani continued to rise through the parliamentary ranks through allegiance to such close allies of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as Gholam Ali Haddad Adel. Haddad Adel was a senior member of the United Principlists’ Front (UPF), a principlist umbrella organization, and Zakani’s Pathseekers was represented handsomely on the UPF list for the 2012 parliamentary elections. Zakani also supported Haddad Adel’s unsuccessful bid against Ali Larijani for the parliamentary speakership position. He has thus aligned himself with a group of Iranian politicians more “hardline” than Larijani (and, of course, Rouhani), but more pragmatic than extremists like Ahmadinejad, with whom Zakani and his faction broke toward the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
Zakani increased his stature significantly in 2013 when he decided to run for president. A new coalition predictably formed to support him, the Front of the Epic-Makers of the Islamic Revolution (FEMIR), comprised of Iran-Iraq War veterans. Zakani ran on a platform of a “more active foreign diplomacy…stabilization of prices, a fair distribution of wealth, and an inclusive social welfare program.” The Guardian Council, a powerful body charged with approving candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections, did not ultimately select Zakani as one of the final eight candidates who were allowed to run for president, likely due to a crowded field of conservative candidates with even greater political clout. But Zakani met Assembly of Experts member (and extreme hard-liner) Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi two weeks before the decision was announced. The publicity of this meeting suggested that Zakani was a serious contender indeed, even if he did not make the cut this time.
The Principlists were stunned by their defeat in 2013, but it was the natural result of their inability to unify behind a small number of candidates. Three of the most prominent conservatives, Haddad Adel, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati, had formed the 2+1 Coalition with each promising to bow out of the race when it became apparent that another was more likely to win. As the race neared its completion in late May, however, the three reneged and remained in the race, splitting the conservative vote and facilitating Rouhani’s victory (although he might well have won in any case). The Principlists have thus once again been forced to reflect on the reasons for an unexpected defeat and design a new approach for the future.
Zakani started by going back to a kind of parliamentary small-ball, attacking Rouhani allies and advocating the spread of the Islamic Revolution’s values abroad. Zakani’s vehement opposition to President Hassan Rouhani’s appointment of Bijan Zanganeh as Oil Minister was ostensibly based on Zanganeh’s involvement in multiple high profile corruption scandals.  It is more likely that Zakani went after Zanganeh so viciously because he was close to Mir Hossein Mousavi, whose refusal to concede an obviously rigged election to Ahmadinejad in 2009 sparked uprisings that marked the most serious threat to the regime’s survival in a decade. Zanganeh was Mousavi’s minister of energy in the 1980s and his campaign advisor in 2009. Attacking him allowed Zakani to emphasize his counter-corruption populist message while also ingratiating himself with the conservative extremists to whom anyone at all connected with Mousavi is anathema.
Zakani has also spoken expansively of Iran’s ambition to expand its revolutionary values throughout the Middle East; in the fall of 2014, Zakani stated, “Three Arab capitals have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian revolution.”  He was referring to Damascus, Baghdad, and Sana’a after the Iranian-linked al Houthi movement had seized power in Yemen through a military coup. This exuberance aligned him rhetorically with the more radical of the IRGC leaders.
Reviewing the Iran Deal
The Principlists started calling for parliamentary review of a possible deal months before the P5+1 and Iran’s initial June deadline to reach a final nuclear agreement. NSFP Parliamentary Commission Spokesman and eventual review commission member Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, for example, argued that Parliament needed to play a significant role in the approval process in February, while Kowsari called for parliamentary review of the deal in April. When the P5+1 and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on July 14, Zakani immediately began demanding a parliamentary review, a proposal that the parliament swiftly acted upon, placing Zakani in the chair of the review commission.
Rouhani opposed the parliamentary review vigorously. He and his allies cited various technical grounds (remarkably similar to those advanced by Obama allies arguing against a Congressional vote), but it is likely that the real reason for his opposition was recognition that a review could only be damaging for him. And so it proved. Zakani led commission members and other conservative political figures such as Expediency Discernment Council Secretary and former IRGC Commander Mohsen Rezaei in an increasingly high-profile fight with Rouhani, gaining a major boost after the Supreme Leader backed a more substantial parliamentary role on September 3.
Under pressure, Rouhani subsequently picked and lost two more controversial fights on the roles of two of Iran’s most powerful institutions, the Guardian Council and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in controlling the upcoming elections and defending the revolution respectively.  Both of these attacks seem to have reflected a misjudgment of the political balance, perhaps caused partly by the unexpected setback Zakani and the commission had imposed on the president.
They surely also reflect real concerns. Rouhani’s assertion that the Guardian Council should be more of an observer and less of a dispositive force in Iran’s elections no doubt was intended to make it harder for the Guardian Council to disqualify Rouhani allies in next year’s parliamentary elections. His claim that the IRGC is not the unique guardian of the values of the revolution was probably meant to weaken the ideological and rhetorical dominance of the Guards, which is an obstacle to Rouhani’s practical efforts to make the Iranian economy more transparent and efficient.
Rouhani may have imagined that his success in getting sanctions lifted would enable him to win these fights. If so, he was very wrong—both the Guardian Council and the Guards counter-attacked strongly, and the Supreme Leader backed both of them against the president ostentatiously. Rouhani has thus emerged from the post-agreement imbroglio started by the fight over Zakani’s review commission damaged, defensive, and under further attack by conservatives seemingly egged-on by the Supreme Leader. This outcome is surely what Zakani and his allies desired in the run-up to the parliamentary elections this spring.
In unsettling Rouhani by means of the review process, Zakani has showed his ability to rally the Principlists, at least for the moment. He found a way to thread the needle between Khamenei’s defense of the negotiations and the conservatives’ desire to attack and reject the deal. He has thus helped unite the Principlists around a strong anti-Rouhani position that the Supreme Leader appears content to tolerate, if not actively encourage.
Can Zakani keep the momentum?
It remains to be seen, however, if Zakani’s tactical success will hold. The Principlists have perennially struggled to maintain unity during parliamentary and presidential elections despite apparently sincere efforts to do so. This temporary unity may evaporate as previous such efforts have done. But it is also possible that Zakani may prove to be the unifier the bloc needs and that he has found the formula for keeping the Principlists together in partnership with the Supreme Leader, some of the radical clergy, and the IRGC. One indicator of his success or failure in this effort will be whether he has a next step after the review commission’s work is completed. Zakani might position himself for leadership of another high-profile parliamentary committee or for a breakout role in the February 2016 parliamentary elections. If the Principlists are successful in the 2016 elections, Zakani could even be one of the viable conservative contenders in the 2017 presidential elections for the Principlists. Zakani’s prospects, in any event, are likely something of a bellwether for the balance of power between Rouhani and the conservatives. And that balance, for the moment, is leaning heavily away from Rouhani.
Ryan Melvin and Caitlin Pendleton contributed research for this piece.