This post is part of the “Iran and the Nuclear Deal” symposium.
Explanations of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s decision to come to the negotiation table and conclude a nuclear deal often emphasize the will of Iranian voters and the election of Hassan Rouhani as president. These explanations ignore two equally important factors behind both Rouhani’s election and the decision to negotiate: Disunity among Iranian conservatives and intra-factional consensus politics in Iran. Understanding these factors is crucial to making sense of Iran’s decision to negotiate and evaluating claims about what a final nuclear deal could mean in the Iranian domestic political context.
Rouhani won the 2013 Iranian presidential election on a campaign platform that included foreign policy promises to end the nuclear crisis and lift economic sanctions, as well as domestic promises to expand social and political freedoms. However, the role of political schisms among Iranian conservatives in Rouhani’s victory has been largely ignored in Iran analysts’ observations. Especially after the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential election, many traditional conservatives began taking issue with the form and substance of the policies of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his hard-line conservative allies.
The nuclear issue was one source of tension between traditional and hard-line conservatives, with the former pushing for its resolution through negotiations in order to lift sanctions while the latter advocated continued confrontation. By the 2013 election campaigns, these tensions had led to divisions among conservatives, contributing to their inability to unite around one or even two strong candidates. The decision of traditional conservatives to break with hard-line conservatives on the nuclear issue in the lead up to the election eased Rouhani’s path to office. As the election neared but the conservative field failed to narrow, Rouhani managed to mobilize both centrist and reformist elites and voters behind his campaign in the final days before the election to eke out the narrowest victory in Iranian presidential history.
Traditional conservatives also enabled the opening that has allowed the recent political framework agreement. As Aaron Stein and I argued in May 2014, the Islamic Republic’s main political currents have come to a broad if delicate consensus to undertake nuclear negotiations with the United States for some time now, perhaps as early as March 2013 when the United States and Iran created the secret back-channel talks in Oman. This consensus appears to continue to hold as both sides concluded a political framework agreement in April 2015 that could be the basis of a final agreement.
So, just who are these traditional conservatives who have been so important to both Rouhani’s ascension and nuclear negotiations? While Tehranology is fraught with perils, taxonomies of key Iranian political currents often divide them into four categories forming two broad camps: reformists and centrists, who together form the “moderate” camp, and traditional and hard-line conservatives, who constitute the conservative “principalist” camp. Iran’s political system is not based on the type of party politics that have characterized many Western liberal democracies. Instead, Iran has political currents based on shifting alliances between important political figures, centers of power and key constituencies.
Most analyses of Iranian politics from outside the country focus on the fluently English-speaking and photogenic centrists and reformists on one hand and the bearded and bombastic hard-line conservatives on the other. However, for some time now the center of gravity in Iranian politics has shifted to traditional conservatives, whose most visible bases include the Shiite clergy and traditional mercantile class (bazaar). Some of the most well-known traditional conservatives include Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, Chief Justice Sadegh Larijani and Center for Strategic Research head and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati. They exercise deep influence over many of the country’s most important centers of power, including the Office of the Supreme Leader, the judiciary, Council of Guardians, parliament and Assembly of Experts. By siding with centrists and reformists or hard-line conservatives as their ideology and interests dictate, they have the power to make or break consensuses on a wide range of policy issues.
While traditional conservatives continue to support Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy and the goal of lifting sanctions, no similar consensus exists on the Iranian president’s promise to expand domestic social and political freedom. Iran’s executive branch certainly has varying degrees of discretion in domestic and foreign policy making and some authority to expand social and political freedoms on its own, as Mohammad Ali Kadivar and Ali Honari recently indicated. But large policy changes today require buy-in from traditional conservatives, and at least when it comes to social and political freedoms, the Rouhani administration is confronted with a largely united conservative current that prefers the status-quo. For this reason, we should limit our expectations of what the Rouhani administration can achieve in the short-term on domestic social and political freedoms, even with a nuclear deal, unless it can reach a new consensus with traditional conservatives. But as events since Rouhani’s August 2013 inauguration illustrate, we should not hold our breath.
The fate of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Zahra Rahnavard, who have remained under house arrest without trial since 2011, is one example why. No steps have been taken to end their state of limbo, with all signs pointing to this state of affairs continuing. As public debate on the Green Movement leaders fate heated up following Rouhani’s election, the Office of the Supreme Leader released an infographic that declared their actions during the post-election crisis as “unpardonable.” Ali Motahari, a maverick conservative sympathetic to the Green Movement leaders’ plight, asked Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about their fate in a private meeting, and quoted the latter as responding: “Their crime is big, and if the Imam [Khomeini] was here he would confront [them] more intensely. If they are prosecuted their sentence will be very heavy and you will definitely not be satisfied. Until now we have been merciful toward them.”
A fourth Green Movement leader, prominent reformist and former president Mohammad Khatami is now the subject of a media ban by the judiciary, which states that “…media outlets do not have the right to publish or transfer images or content on him. This order continues to be in effect and if an outlet acts against it they shall be confronted.”
The case of former minister of science, research and technology Reza Faraji Dana is also telling. Rouhani has given a more prominent role to reformists in this ministerial portfolio to end corruption and Ahmadinejad-era policies that have been harmful to students and faculty. Not long after his appointment Faraji Dana, a respected former president of the University of Tehran, became one of the few ministers in the Islamic Republic’s history to be impeached. This was carried out by the same traditional conservative-dominated parliament that has largely supported the president’s nuclear diplomacy, as Paasha Mahdavi has also noted recently.
In another key elected center of power, the Assembly of Experts, a centrist candidate more open to expanding social and political freedoms lost a leadership race in this past March. The Assembly of Experts is an elected clerical body responsible for selecting, monitoring and removing the supreme leader. Elder statesman and former two-term president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani lost the internal race for leadership of the body to the traditional conservative Mohammad Yazdi by a two-to-one margin.
Some have suggested that a nuclear agreement could give Rouhani and his allies momentum in the lead up to the 2016 parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections. This ignores the filtering role that the conservative-dominated Council of Guardians has historically played and will likely again play. The council is a quasi-judicial quasi-electoral body that plays a multiplicity of roles within Iran’s political system. Its functions include vetting candidates for presidential, parliamentary and Assembly of Expert elections, as well as overseeing elections. Its leaders have expressed vigilance ahead of the 2016 vote about the types of candidates who may try to enter the parliament and Assembly of Experts – and may will disqualify candidates viewed as being sympathetic to Rouhani’s domestic agenda.
All of this is certainly not to suggest that a nuclear deal would have zero dividends for the Iranian president to use on the domestic front. Rouhani’s success in finalizing a deal in 2015 could boost his credibility as a strong leader among elites across Iran’s political spectrum, enabling him to forge new consensuses on a wide variety of domestic policy issues. It could also energize his voter base to turn out in large numbers for the 2016 parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections. A more Rouhani-friendly parliament could aid the Iranian president by precluding defeats like the Faraji Dana affair, while a Rouhani-friendly Assembly of Experts could select the next supreme leader to be more amenable to expanding social and political freedoms.
The Iranian people are certainly active agents in forging their own destiny and the political destiny of their country, whether through elections or social and political activism. However, we – as analysts and scholars – ignore the importance of elite consensus politics in the Islamic Republic at our own peril. This is doubly true for the traditional conservatives who have for the moment become the consensus makers in Iranian politics but often remain unnoticed.
Farzan Sabet (@IranWonk) is a PhD candidate in international history at the Graduate Institute, Geneva and a visiting fellow at the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He is also managing editor at IranPolitik (@IranPolitik), a Web site on Iranian domestic politics and foreign policy.