The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Iran File: Newly Empowered Hardliners Move against Rouhani
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]
Iran’s newly empowered hardliners will undermine President Hassan Rouhani for the remainder of his term and likely facilitate the election of a far-right president in 2021. Iranian hardliners—who call themselves “principlists”—took control of Parliament after interfering in Iran’s legislative elections in February. The principlist victory was part of a larger shift in Iran’s political institutions, beginning in the Judiciary, toward the far-right conservative camp. Hardliners are engineering this shift and coordinating to politically neutralize the moderate agenda.
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 Rouhani’s moderate government.
Rouhani lost vital political support when former IRGC Air Force Commander Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf replaced Ali Larijani as parliament speaker in May. Ghalibaf is a staunch fundamentalist and *withdrew from Iran’s presidential race in 2017 to endorse current hardline Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi against Rouhani. Since entering office, Ghalibaf has *chastised the president, called for parliamentary oversight, and handled now-failed impeachment efforts against Rouhani in July. Ghalibaf also *barred the vice president from defending Rouhani’s proposed industry minister during a parliamentary vote of confidence; the nomination failed 140 to 104 votes.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *intervened to quash the impeachment proceedings against Rouhani. Khamenei likely fears that high-profile questionings and overt regime infighting would damage already dwindling public confidence in the Islamic Republic. Parliament’s attacks against the administration will nonetheless further discredit moderates before Iran’s 2021 presidential election.
Larijani is contrastingly a Rouhani ally who supported the president’s agenda. He had been speaker since 2008 and pushed approval of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) through Parliament in a 20-minute session in 2015. Larijani also ardently supported Rouhani’s efforts to promote transparency and compliance with international money laundering and counterterrorism-financing standards.
Hardliners are using their newfound legislative influence to promote aggressive and authoritarian policies, undermining Rouhani’s political promises. Principlists reignited debate over the JCPOA, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol, and regime censorship. Hardline parliamentarians submitted separate plans to Ghalibaf in recent weeks to withdraw from the JCPOA and *Additional Protocol agreement. Hardliners also resumed their criticisms against social media, supporting a ban on Instagram.
The motion to abrogate the JCPOA depends on whether the US uses snapback sanctions to extend the international arms embargo on Iran, and it is unclear whether the regime would enforce the plan. The Additional Protocol facilitates the IAEA’s inspection, monitoring, and verification of Iran’s nuclear program. Hardliner opposition to the JCPOA and IAEA presence in Iran is not, however, new. Principlists have historically criticized the nuclear deal and generally disagreed with the Rouhani administration’s more internationalist approach vis-à-vis the West.
Ghalibaf is also likely coordinating with hardliners outside Parliament to politically neutralize Rouhani. Ghalibaf and Judiciary Chief Raisi reportedly *sent a letter to Khamenei expressing opposition to a government proposal to sell oil bonds domestically. Rouhani pushed the plan at a *Supreme Economic Coordination Council meeting on August 10, seeking to bolster Iran’s foreign currency reserves as the rial hit record lows. Rouhani co-chairs the council with Ghalibaf and Raisi. The Judiciary, however, denied sending the letter to Khamenei.
IRGC commanders will also likely leverage the principlist legislature to expand their political influence. Ghalibaf is part of a band of senior IRGC officers with close ties dating back to the Iran-Iraq War. This circle—which CTP labels the IRGC Command Network—has historically intervened in Iran’s domestic politics to assert its far-right ideals. Ghalibaf *convened with several Command Network members in June to publicly emphasize their mutual support for one another.
A hardliner will likely become president in 2021 as Rouhani is further discredited. Rouhani cannot run for reelection and is struggling to preserve his political achievements and legacy. Iran is experiencing stagflation and severe recession. A hardline candidate could leverage domestic frustrations to win the election, and many Iranians are disillusioned with moderates. Iranian media occasionally *acknowledges the likelihood of a principlist victory. Principlists could also again interfere to advantage far-right candidates as they did in February.
Analysts and Iranian media have begun speculating likely candidates, many of whom are far-right politicians close to Khamenei. Potential hardline contenders include Raisi, Mostazafan Foundation President Parviz Fattah, and former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Ghalibaf may also be preparing for his own presidential bid given his behavior in Parliament. Presidential aspirants will tout their credentials in the coming months to prepare for their campaign. These candidates will likely promote themselves as anti-corruption, pro-privatization, and matching Khamenei’s public *call for a young and ideological president.
Expanding hardliner control will facilitate increasingly aggressive and authoritarian Iranian behavior while exacerbating economic turmoil and domestic dissent. Principlists will prioritize funding the armed forces—particularly the IRGC—for adventurism abroad and crackdowns domestically. Hardliners will also facilitate isolationist economic policies and may ultimately damage the economy further. Anti-regime sentiment in Iran will also likely grow as principlists consolidate power.