A man casts his vote during parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tehran, Iran February 21, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

February 26, 2020

U.S. Must Be Wary as Iran’s Parliament Veers Hard Right

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Principlists’ victory in the parliamentary elections last Friday is part of a larger shift in Iran’s political environment toward the far-right conservative camp. Principlists—often called hardliners in the West—are regaining influence in key institutions and trying to undermine so-called moderates. Iran will likely transition from relative moderates to principlists controlling all three branches of government by mid-2021. Expanding hardliner control will facilitate increasingly aggressive and authoritarian Iranian behavior while exacerbating economic turmoil and domestic dissent.

Principlists generally oppose engagement with the West and support protectionist economic policies and significant state involvement in society. This faction includes many in the clergy and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who oppose President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate  administration.

This political shift began in Iran’s judiciary and parliament. President Rouhani, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, and Judiciary Chief Sadegh Amoli Larijani headed Iran’s branches of government in early 2019. Ali Larijani is a moderate politician and Rouhani ally who has been speaker since 2008. He pushed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s (JCPOA) approval through parliament in a 20-minute session in 2015. Ali’s conservative brother, Sadegh, often bitterly argued with Rouhani, but the two agreed at least partially on major economic matters. Sadegh Larijani’s public statements suggest they agreed on the *JCPOA and *integration with the international economy. Rouhani could likely therefore cooperate with Ali and—to a lesser extent—Sadegh on some political and economic matters.

Principlists more hostile to Rouhani will have replaced both Larijanis by mid-2020, depriving Rouhani of potential political allies. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei *replaced Sadegh as judiciary chief with Ebrahim Raisi in March 2019. Raisi is Rouhani’s conservative rival and favors isolationist economic policies. Raisi routinely blames Rouhani for economic shortcomings.

The incoming hardliner-majority legislature will likely elect a principlist parliament speaker to succeed Ali Larijani. Ali did not run for reelection and will leave office in May. Many analysts consider hardliner Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf a likely successor. Ghalibaf is a well-connected former IRGC commander and Rouhani critic. Ghalibaf *withdrew from Iran’s presidential race in 2017 to endorse Raisi against Rouhani.

Hardliners—with Khamenei’s backing—are engineering this shift. Iran’s ultraconservative Guardian Council disqualified an unusually high number of moderates before the legislative elections. The council is responsible for vetting and approving electoral candidates and includes six clerics appointed by Khamenei and six legislators elected by parliament. The council has historically disqualified large numbers of candidates, but its most recent disapprovals were abnormally high. Khamenei defended the council after moderates criticized the disqualifications. The US sanctioned council members and its secretary, Ahmad Jannati, on February 20 for manipulating the elections.

The council likely disqualified moderates specifically to favor principlists. The council *claimed most disapprovals were due to corruption—which is endemic in parliament—and a lack of commitment to the Islamic Republic. This criteria was subjective and unequally enforced.

Iran will likely elect a hardline president in 2021. Principlists are positioned to do well versus moderates. Rouhani cannot run for reelection next year, and many Iranians are disillusioned with moderates. Rouhani did not fulfill major campaign promises, and the JCPOA has floundered. Iran is experiencing stagflation and severe recession. A hardline candidate could leverage domestic frustration to win the election. The Guardian Council could also interfere again to advantage principlists.

Iranian elections are also somewhat cyclical, oscillating between hardliner and reformist presidents particularly since 1997. (Reformist Mohammad Khatami was followed by hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom the more moderate Rouhani succeeded.) Next year’s election therefore favors hardliners regardless of regime interference.

Hardliners will enable more aggressive and authoritarian behavior in Iran’s security apparatus. Raisi has used the judiciary to arrest and purge political opponents ostensibly to combat corruption. Parliament is institutionally weak but influences the fiscal budget. A hardliner-dominated legislature—especially under Ghalibaf—will further prioritize funding the IRGC under US sanctions and enable brutal crackdowns against protesters.

Raisi and Ghalibaf have historically supported brutal oppression against dissent. Raisi abetted the regime’s mistreatment, torture, and killing of thousands during Iran’s mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. Raisi was a senior prosecutor at the time. Ghalibaf signed a famous open letter from IRGC leaders to reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1999, pressuring him to crack down on student protesters. The commanders threatened to intervene if Khatami did not act.

The judiciary chief and parliament speaker also influence Iran’s top security and economic decision-making bodies—the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and Supreme Economic Coordination Council (SECC). The president, parliament speaker, and judiciary chief are ex officio SNSC members and jointly chair the SECC. The SNSC convenes political and military leaders to dictate security policies such as external operations and domestic oppression. The SECC is Iran’s “economic war room” to mitigate sanctions and decides on major economic policies. These councils’ members are therefore extremely influential despite the government’s and parliament’s weakness relative to the supreme leader. Council members comprise Khamenei’s inner circle advising him on security and economic affairs.

Principlists will adopt autarkic policies, likely exacerbating economic turmoil. Principlists argue that Iran should drive economic growth internally. Hardliners—including *Khamenei—believe Iran should support domestic industries to become self-sufficient. Some IRGC officials *proposed leveraging US sanctions on the energy sector to diversify the economy. Rouhani and moderates, on the other hand, generally support integration into the international economy to attract foreign investment and complicate US efforts to isolate Iran.

Principlists likely cannot achieve economic self-sufficiency in Iran’s dysfunctional, corrupt, and opaque system. The regime enables and relies on prolific corruption and nepotism, hindering economic efficiency. State-run conglomerates monopolize domestic markets to the private sector’s detriment. The IRGC controls and profits from these economic giants and intentionally tries to obfuscate its dealings. A hardline government will likely reverse Rouhani’s efforts to privatize regime-owned entities. Hardliners may ultimately damage the economy further and inadvertently hasten the Islamic Republic’s collapse.

Anti-regime sentiment will mount as the political establishment increasingly favors hardliners’ economic priorities. Nationwide anti-regime protests have erupted twice in recent years over economic grievances—the 2017–18 Dey Protests and November 2019 gasoline riots. Demonstrators criticized government mismanagement, corruption, and the regime’s squandering of resources on adventurism in the Levant.

Hardliners will empower the IRGC instead of addressing these grievances. Principlists will more likely award IRGC-owned companies lucrative contracts and enable the IRGC to misuse funds supporting Iranian proxies and partners abroad. Hardliners will also likely up-gun Iranian security services to crack down on future protests. A hardline government will further block efforts to promote transparency or comply with international money-laundering and counterterrorism-financing standards.

Hardliners will also lose their scapegoat as moderates leave power, potentially generating principlist infighting. Hardliners may target one another as the economy and public dissent worsen and moderates recede from the scene. Principlists have argued since the Dey Protests that Rouhani cannot manage the economy. Hardline legislators impeached senior economic officials in mid-2018 to divert public disaffection toward moderates. *IRGC officials and *Raisi later criticized Rouhani after the SECC significantly raised fuel prices in November 2019, which catalyzed anti-regime riots. Raisi wanted to portray himself as having a minimal role in raising prices despite having approved the decision.

The US “maximum pressure” campaign was not the sole cause of this transition toward hardliners. Principlists naturally sought to oust their rivals and believe they can better run the economy regardless of US policy. Iran’s protest movement intensified pressure to alleviate economic deficiencies, but anti-regime demonstrations preceded the maximum pressure campaign. Maximum pressure did add momentum to this shift, however. US economic pressure exacerbated economic decline and deterred European businesses from reentering the Iranian economy.

The US must be wary of this ongoing transition when considering potential negotiations with the regime. In the coming years, Iran’s political establishment will be more hardline than was the one with which the Barack Obama administration negotiated the JCPOA. This more hardline government will face less internal resistance from moderates when funding the IRGC and promoting authoritarian and autarkic policies.