November 23, 2015

Rouhani's Impromptu Alliance may Transform the Political Field in Iran

The Iranian government’s process for approving the nuclear deal reveals a great deal about its interpretation of the agreement; it also provided insight into the future of Iranian domestic politics.[1] The fight over approving the deal was a pivotal moment in President Hassan Rouhani’s battle to retain and strengthen his position against his political adversaries. It is far from clear whether he has gained or lost from it, and the game is still in play.[2]

The Islamic Republic of Iran is an odd construct. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is an absolute autocrat in principle. He can overrule any governmental body on any decision at any time, or take personal control over any matter he pleases. Yet he prefers to guide rather than rule and to balance competing factions and bodies rather than to take sides. Iran has all of the trappings of a normal government under him. Its president is directly elected alongside a unicameral legislature headed by a speaker. The parliament has the normal standing committees on various policy topics. There is also an independent judiciary whose head the Supreme Leader appoints.

Iranian parliamentary politics is a proving ground for future presidential candidates. Many of Iran’s presidents served in parliament, including Rouhani, his predecessor Mohammad Khatami, and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The current parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, was a serious contender for the presidency in 2005 and may well be again in the next one in 2017. 

Parliament is also a significant check on the president, holding the power of the purse over him (although not over the Supreme Leader or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, both of which have independent income streams). It also can and regularly does interpellate and dismiss the president’s ministers. Western analysts have neglected the study of Iran’s parliament to the detriment of our understanding of the Islamic Republic.

Iranians will go to the polls this spring to elect a new parliament, moreover, which has made the approval of the nuclear deal a major domestic political issue. The Supreme Leader chose to allow the political process of approval to play out, intervening only to ensure that it continued to unfold to the end, thus raising the stakes even higher and continuing the tradition of causing competing power blocks and institutions to balance one another beneath him.[3] Khamenei, for his part, generally weighed in against Rouhani, although not decisively, on key issues, such as the administration’s interpretation of the nuclear deal.[4]

The struggle over the approval of the deal, signed on July 14, pitted Rouhani against a group of parliamentary conservatives trying to galvanize a political faction that opposes him, known generally as the Principlists. Rouhani initially hoped to bypass parliament altogether, asserting that the deal was not a treaty and so did not warrant, let alone, require parliamentary approval.[5] Iranian lawmakers, however, pushed back and demanded their constitutional rights. Parliament immediately embroiled him in a fight about its legislative prerogatives.[6] The legislative dispute was co-opted by a determined faction that sought to recapture a unified and ascendant Principlist base in Parliament. This faction opposed the negotiations even before the final P5+1 agreement was announced on July 14.[7] They openly criticized the Joint Plan of Action interim agreement and would have liked to derail any final deal, should the Supreme Leader have allowed that.[8] But they also saw it as an opportunity to wound Rouhani politically, which they seized by establishing an ad hoc parliamentary commission to review the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is formally known.[9]

This parliamentary maneuver put Rouhani in a difficult spot. He has no power as president to prevent parliament from considering what it will or from passing any law it wants—he lacks the power even to veto legislation. Only the Supreme Leader could have blocked parliament’s review of the JCPOA, and he remained obstinately silent for much of the debate before finally decreeing that parliament must review the deal in some form.[10] Rouhani thus had to find allies within parliament itself to manage this challenge despite the fact that Principlists hold an overwhelming majority of its seats.[11] 

Remarkably, he did. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and the National Security and Foreign Policy (NSFP) Parliamentary Commission Chairman Alaeddin Boroujerdi, rallied to his cause and short-circuited the efforts of the more extreme Principlists to protract the approval fight and gore Rouhani.[12] Rouhani thus escaped with relatively minor injuries from this initial skirmish, and the momentum of his hardline parliamentary adversaries was at least temporarily halted.


Rival Factions

The alliance among Rouhani, Larijani, and Boroujerdi is at first glance a strange one. Rouhani campaigned as a moderate, while Larijani is a senior member of the conservative United Principlist Front (UPF), an umbrella group theoretically uniting the Principlist members of parliament. Boroujerdi is also a member of the UPF, under whose auspices he was re-elected to parliament in 2012.[13] Boroujerdi is particularly close to Ali Akbar Velayati, who ran against Rouhani in 2013 on a staunchly conservative platform and is the Supreme Leader’s senior foreign policy advisor. Boroujerdi served as the head of the political committee for Velayati’s campaign in 2013, in fact.[14] Both are thus principlists in good standing and Boroujerdi, at least, appears to be a protégé of this hardliner who is close to the Supreme Leader.

Parliamentarians Ali Reza Zakani, Mohammad Esmail Kowsari, and Javad Karimi Ghodousi, who led the opposition faction and coalesced around the attempt to use the nuclear deal to the president’s detriment, are also Principlists. Ghodousi is a member of the Society of Self-Sacrifices of the Islamic Revolution, which is an extreme Principlist organization, and politically aligned with Zakani.[15]

But the two Principlist sub-factions have been political enemies for some time. Ghodousi and Zakani have long opposed Boroujerdi and Larijani. Zakani endorsed hardliner Gholam Ali Haddad Adel’s campaign against Larijani for Parliament Speaker.[16] Kowsari has been a persistent and vociferous Rouhani critic.[17] Ghodousi had helped get Boroujerdi arrested on corruption charges in 2012, in fact.[18] Boroujerdi allegedly used "false letters of credit" that facilitated the embezzlement of $3 billion from eight Iranian banks, including Bank Saderat and Bank Melli.[19] Ghodousi publicly accused Boroujerdi of financial corruption, claiming that he wrote “recommendation letters under the cover page of the National Security Commission for the Amir Mansour Arya group and Khavari…” The arrest, however, lasted only 24 hours and the case was reportedly settled through "mediation" by Larijani (Boroujerdi denies that Larijani intervened in the case).[20] The battle lines were thereby drawn between these two groups long before the nuclear negotiations picked up steam. The Ghodousi, Kowsari, and Zakani alliance against Rouhani thus helps explain why Boroujerdi and Larijani closed ranks behind the president against their Principlist comrades.

The struggle between these Principlist factions is at least partly a fight over control of the Principlist movement going into the 2016 parliamentary elections. That movement has been dealing with internal challenges for a while, but it was fractured badly by the time of the 2013 presidential elections, a fact that its leaders cite as the reason for Rouhani’s triumph.[21] Zakani and his auxiliaries seem to have been using the fight against the nuclear deal as a vehicle to unify the Principlists under their banner, whereas Larijani and Boroujerdi worked in concert—albeit indirectly—with respect to the JCPOA and appeared determined to prevent such a development. The fight over the nuclear deal in Tehran as in Washington was therefore always also a struggle among competing political factions to advance their own partisan interests.


The Fight over the Deal

The anti-Rouhani faction began using parliamentary tactics to attack the nuclear negotiations even before the deal was announced. Ghodousi proposed a “triple-emergency bill” in May 2015 to terminate nuclear talks between Tehran and Washington.[22] Legislation classified as triple-emergency is not common; it is viewed as an extreme measure, typically used when the nation is facing an imminent threat.[23] The Ghodousi-initiated bill nevertheless received 80 signatures (out of 290 parliamentarians), although it did not pass.

Once Iran and the P5+1 officially signed the final deal on July 14, 2015, President Hassan Rouhani made a concerted effort to circumvent Iranian lawmakers and initiate the implementation process. Parliament, however, pushed back and formed an ad hoc commission to review the agreement under the chairmanship of Zakani with Kowsari as a member.[24] Rouhani continued to argue against parliament’s right to approve the agreement, while Zakani moved forward with setting the commission in motion.

Supreme Leader Khamenei, however, weighed in against Rouhani in early September and empowered Parliament to complete its review.[25] Khamenei’s intervention in the debate was a serious set-back for Rouhani and a temporary victory for the more conservative Principlist faction.[26] The Supreme Leader, moreover, explicitly singled Rouhani out for criticism: “I have said, Mr. President, it is not in the best interest to exclude Parliament from reviewing the JCPOA.”[27]

Zakani redoubled his efforts after Khamenei’s endorsement, and the JCPOA review commission submitted its initial report on the agreement to Parliament’s Board of Directors on October 4.[28] (The Board of Directors, chaired by the speaker, sets the rules for parliamentary sessions, debates, and voting on legislation.)[29] The special commission’s report argued that Iran was surrendering some of its “future rights” by conceding to limitations on the nuclear program.[30] It also noted that the agreement had secured the suspension, but not the cancellation of sanctions, violating one of the Supreme Leader’s redlines; that it gave the international community the right to inspect Iran’s military sites (crossing another redline); and that it specified bodies charged with ensuring Iran’s compliance with the deal without creating any responsibility for ensuring the West’s compliance. It made nine specific recommendations regarding the way in which implementing legislation should be presented to parliament and de facto alterations in the JCPOA itself.

The report is generally moderate in tone and balanced in the sense that it presents both positive and negative aspects of the agreement. It is also a reasonably accurate reading of the texts of the JCPOA and of the UN Security Council Resolution implementing it. Yet it landed like a bombshell in Parliament, reaction to it reflecting the highly-charged partisan environment in Tehran surrounding the deal and Rouhani’s policies. Alaeddin Boroujerdi argued that the report ignored the positive aspects of the nuclear deal and that it was “damaging to the interests of the nation.”[31] He contended that the assessment was contrived by Zakani, stating that “it is not known where the report was written, in any case, it cannot be in the name of the [15-member] commission.”[32] Boroujerdi said that Speaker Larijani had “pointed out to the commission many times” not to play into the hands of Iran’s enemies, suggesting that Zakani had done so in the end.

Zakani clearly sought to make the JCPOA Review Commission the dominant player in the parliamentary process of approving the nuclear deal.[33] Zakani desired to ensure that this commission would become a de facto standing body charged with continually overseeing the implementation of the agreement—a position from which he could have launched regular and continuous attacks against Rouhani.[34] Other parliamentarians wanted to require the administration to submit the agreement itself to a vote in parliament, a ploy that could have given them scope to amend it as well as to critique it.[35] Early October was consequently a dangerous moment for Rouhani, when the Supreme Leader’s apparent rhetorical support for Zakani and the deal’s opponents seemed to promise a bloody approval process that might even have compromised the integrity of the agreement with the West.

But Larijani came to Rouhani’s rescue. Using his power as speaker and chairman of the parliamentary Board of Directors, Larijani gave responsibility for revising and reviewing the resolution on which parliament would vote to the two standing committees most immediately concerned in the issue (the Energy Commission and the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission), thus removing it from the purview of Zakani’s ad hoc review commission. [36]

Boroujerdi thus became the central player in revising and reviewing the resolution authorizing the government to implement the nuclear deal, “The Proportional and Reciprocal Plan of Action for the Implementation of the JCPOA.”[37] This bill authorizes the administration to implement the agreement and grants the NSFP Commission the responsibility for receiving reports about Western compliance with the deal and presenting them to parliament, eliminating the role of the JCPOA Review Commission headed by Zakani. The bill added relatively fewer constraints on the administration’s ability to implement the deal than the JCPOA Review recommendations would have done, and it gave the administration more wiggle-room. Parliament passed the bill on October 11.[38] Larijani and Boroujerdi had gotten Rouhani out of a tough situation.

The Supreme Leader endorsed the deal on October 21 in an open letter to Rouhani.[39] His endorsement was in some respects a blow to Zakani, who accepted it without excessive grace, saying, “Today’s important message from the Supreme Leader must be the ultimate arbiter of the supporters and opponents of the JCPOA…”[40]

But Khamenei’s letter must also have given some heart to Zakani and his anti-Rouhani allies. It began by thanking a number of individuals and bodies, starting with the negotiating committee, but moving immediately to “the critics, who reminded us of [the JCPOA’s] weak points with their praiseworthy meticulousness; and especially the head [Zakani] and members of the Parliament’s Special Commission [to Review the JCPOA].” It continued by attaching a number of declarations regarding the Supreme Leader’s interpretation of the deal and instructions to Rouhani for implementing it that went far beyond even what Zakani and his commission had recommended.[41] Zakani had lost the procedural fight to the parliamentary leaders backing Rouhani, but he received direct praise from the Supreme Leader for his efforts as well as support to his policy positions. 


A Pyrrhic Victory for Rouhani?

Rouhani got his deal and avoided a drawn-out fight with parliament over its approval. But his victory relied on help from political rivals—albeit pragmatic competitors—who have campaigned against him and his allies in previous elections. If Rouhani is able to cement a partnership with Larijani, Boroujerdi, and, perhaps even Velayati that transcends support for the nuclear deal, then he may indeed have a chance to reshape the political landscape in Tehran.[42] It is far from clear, however, that this single-issue partnership can be expanded to such an extent. The fractious history of the Principlist movement makes such an enduring partnership seem unlikely, but it is not impossible.

The Supreme Leader’s letter to Rouhani endorsing the deal should also give pause to those who hope to see the president lead moderates and even reformers to electoral success next year. Khamenei weighed in on the side of Zakani and Rouhani’s hardline adversaries who were in desperate need of an opportunity, like the JCPOA review body to unify and mobilize. Khamenei’s support for Zakani at Rouhani’s expense was far from an unambiguous act, especially since the Supreme Leader ultimately did allow Larijani and Boroujerdi to hasten the bill approving the deal through parliament.

The Supreme Leader is a shrewd politician whose statements address many constituencies at the same time. His rhetorical support for the Zakani-led commission achieved at least two objectives: first, he provided the extremist wing of Parliament with an outlet to attack Rouhani. Second, the explicit criticism from the Principlists reduced Rouhani’s independence and increased the Supreme Leader’s leverage regarding certain aspects of Rouhani’s reform agenda. 

Rouhani seems certain to face strong headwinds from the Supreme Leader’s suspicions of the deal and resistance to some of Rouhani’s policies aimed at integrating Iran more thoroughly into the international economy.[43] Khamenei fears that integration will derail the Islamic Revolution. If Larijani and Boroujerdi continue to support Rouhani despite Khamenei’s apparent displeasure and attempts to level the playing field, however, their pragmatic alliance might herald a significant change in the political balance of power in Iran indeed.

Ryan Melvin and Caitlin Pendleton contributed research for this publication.


[1] Frederick Kagan, “Iran’s interpretation of the nuclear deal is not an easy sell,” AEIdeas, September 2, 2015. Available:; Frederick Kagan, “Khamenei’s nuclear signing statement reveals Iran’s attempt to control the playing field,” AEIdeas, October 22. Available:
[2] Frederick Kagan, “Another nuclear headache for Iran’s president — and for Obama,” AEIdeas, October 22, 2015. Available:
[3] Kambiz Foroohar, “Khamenei’s Lukewarm Backing of Iran Pact Encourages Opposition,” Bloomberg, August 19, 2015. Available:
[4] Frederick Kagan, “Iranian Interpretation of the JCPOA: Statements from Iranian Officials,” Iran Tracker, September 2, 2015. Available:
[5] J. Matthew McInnis and Tara Beeny, “Is Iran already gaming the nuclear deal?” AEIdeas, October 2, 2015. Available:; Islamic Republic of Iran Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, retrieved on October 22, 2015. Available in Persian: http://mfa(.)ir/index.aspx?fkeyid=&siteid=1&pageid=2157
[6] Marie Donovan, “Iran’s conservatives are bludgeoning President Rouhani with his own deal,” AEIdeas, October 6, 2015. Available:
[7] Marie Donovan, “Iran’s domestic political scene and the nuclear deal,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, October 5, 2015. Available:
[8] Arash Karami, “’We’re Worried’ conference against nuclear deal stirs backlash,” Al Monitor, May 5, 2014. Available:
[9] “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” U.S. Department of State. Available:
[10] “Iran News Round Up, September 3, 2015,” Iran Tracker, September 3, 2015. Available:
[12] Seyyed Hossein Mousavian, “A rejection of the nuclear deal could lead to radicalism in Iran,” Washington Post, August 28, 2015. Available:
[14] Marie Donovan, “Iran’s domestic political scene and the nuclear deal,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, October 5, 2015. Available:
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] “Tarh-e seh fouriati-e tavaghof-e mozaakeraat baa aamrikaa taghdim-e hayaat-e raiseh-ye majles shod” [The triple-emergency plan to stop negotiations with America was presented to Parliament’s Board of Directors], Entekhab, May 12, 2015. Available in Persian: http://www(.)entekhab(.)ir/fa/news/203666; “Iran News Round Up, August 24, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Available:; “Iran News Round Up, September 9, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Available:
[18] Muhammad Sahimi, “Majles link to $3 billion embezzlement case,” The Public Broadcasting Service, January 4, 2012. Available:
[19] “Influential Iranian MP briefly arrested over bank fraud case,” Payvand News, October 29, 2011. Available: http://www(.)payvand(.)com/news/11/oct/1304.html; “Iranian Parliament divided over bank fraud case,” Payvand News, October 28, 2011. Available: http://www(.)payvand(.)com/news/11/oct/1293.html
[20] Boroujerdi stressed that “the topic about the arrest and about the intervention of Mr. Larijani and the other matter is a lie – if this news mentioned by the media has been created and polished, it is worthy of being pursued by a judge.” See “Boroujerdi: Hich yek az ozaa-ye komisioun-e amniat-e meli baazdaasht nashodeand” [Boroujerdi: Not a single member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission has been arrested], Donya-e Eqtesad, October 27, 2011. Available in Persian: http://www(.)donya-e-eqtesad(.)com/news/423397/
[21] Marie Donovan, “Iran’s domestic political scene and the nuclear deal,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, October 5, 2015. Available:
[22] “Shasht emzaa’ bar tarh-e tavaghof-e mozaakeraat taa ghat-e tahdidaat-e aamrikaa / Emzaahaa dar haal-e afzaayesh ast” [Sixty signatures on the plan to stop negotiations in order to end America’s threats / the signatures are increasing], Fars News Agency, May 10, 2015. Available in Persian: http://www(.)farsnews(.)com/newstext.php?nn=13940220000882
[23] Arash Karami, “Iran MPs deny signing bill to suspend nuclear talks,” Al Monitor, May 12, 2015. Available:
[24] Ibid.
[25] “Iran News Round Up, September 3, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Available:
[26] J. Matthew McInnis, “Did the Supreme Leader cut Rouhani down to size?” AEIdeas, September 10, 2015. Available:
[27] Ibid.
[28] “Iran News Round Up, October 5, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Available:; Islamic Consultative Assembly, “Hayaat-e raise-ye majles-e shouraa-ye eslami-e doureh-ye nohom – saal-e aval” [Parliament’s Board of Directors ninth term – first year], Parliament, October 23, 2015. Available in Persian: http://www(.)parliran(.)ir/index.aspx?siteid=1&pageid=380; “CONSTITUTION OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN,” Foundation for Iranian Studies, October 21, 2015. Available: http://fis-iran(.)org/en/resources/legaldoc/constitutionislamic
[29] Ibid.
[30] “Matn-e kaamel-e gozaaresh-e komisioun-e vizhe-ye barresi-e barjaam dar majles” [Complete text of the Special Commission to Review the JCPOA’s report in Parliament], Fars News Agency, October 4, 2015. Available in Persian: http://www(.)farsnews(.)com/newstext.php?nn=13940712000110
[31] “Iran News Round Up, October 9, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Available:
[32] “Boroujerdi: Baa gozaaresh-e bad komisioun-e barjaam, zorbe-ye badi beh keshvar zadand” [With the bad report, the JCPOA commission struck a bad blow to the country], ISNA, October 9, 2015. Available in Persian: http://isna(.)ir/fa/news/94071710956/%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AC%D8%B1%D8%AF%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D8%A7-%DA%AF%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%B4-%D8%A8%D8%AF-%DA%A9%D9%85%DB%8C%D8%B3%DB%8C%D9%88%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%AC%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%B6%D8%B1%D8%A8%D9%87; “Entekhaab-e ozaa-ye komisioun-e vizhe-ye majles baraa-ye barresi-e barjaam” [The election of members of the Parliament’s Special Commission for the review of the JCPOA],” http://www(.)iribnews(.)ir/NewsBody.aspx?ID=91450
[33] “Iran News Round Up, October 6, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Available:
[34] Amir Hossein Mahdavi, “Why did Iran’s parliament hold hearings on the nuclear deal?” Washington Post, October 6, 2015. Available:
[36] “Iran News Round Up, October 5, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Available:; “Iran News Round Up, October 6, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Available:  
[37] “Majles-e iran beh yek fouriat tarh-e ejraa-ye barjaam ra’i daad” [Iran’s Parliament voted on the single emergency JCPOA implementation plan], British Broadcasting Corporation, October 4, 2015. Available in Persian:; Jordan Olmstead, “Iran's Parliamentary Resolution on the JCPOA,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, October 16, 2015. Available:
[38] “Parliament Passes Bill on Iran-Powers N. Deal,” Parliament, October 14, 2015. Available:  http://en(.)parliran(.)ir/index.aspx?fkeyid=&siteid=84&pageid=3060&newsview=30347; Olmstead 2015.
[39] Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, “In letter to Rouhani, Supreme Leader Khamenei approves the implementation of the JCPOA,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, October 22, 2015. Available:
[40] “Payaam-e rahbar-e enghelaab-e faslalkhataabi baraa-ye movafeghin va mokhalefin-e barjaam bud” [The Supreme Leader’s message was for the supporters and opponents of the JCPOA], Tasnim News Agency, October 21, 2015. Available in Persian:   
[41] Frederick Kagan, “Another nuclear headache for Iran’s president — and for Obama,” AEIdeas, October 22, 2015. Available:; Pendleton 2015; Frederick Kagan, “Khamenei’s nuclear signing statement reveals Iran’s attempt to control the playing field,” AEIdeas, October 22, 2015. Available:
[42] Ruhollah Faghihi, “Will Rouhani, Larijani reshape Iran’s political landscape?” Al Monitor, August 4, 2015. Available:
[43] Amir Toumaj, “Iran’s Economy of Resistance: Implications for future sanctions,” AEIdeas, November 17, 2014. Available:


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