February 26, 2016 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Principlists to Dominate Elections

February 26, 2016 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Principlists to Dominate Elections

Analyses in U.S. media suggest today’s Iranian parliamentary election is a decisive battle between hard-liners and moderates. The discourse among Iran’s leaders, however, tells a different story.

Speaking to a large crowd on Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described the very labels of “moderate” and “hard-liner” as “enemy lies.” Instead, he said, the Islamic Republic is divided between those loyal to the Islamic Revolution on one side and “the arrogant front” – a common regime term for the West – “and those who think like it” on the other.

Put another way, anyone aspiring to hold political office in parliamentary elections must be committed to the revolution’s ideals. Gauging that commitment is the task of the Guardian Council, charged with vetting all candidates for Iran’s parliament, presidency, and the Assembly of Experts – the body that chooses and supervises the supreme leader.

Of the 12,000 candidates for the parliamentary elections, the Guardian Council rejected more than half – most of them from the reformists and pragmatist camps. Unsurprisingly, the regime’s most extreme elements – or as they call themselves, Principlists – were almost all approved.

All Principlists follow the revolutionary line as described by Khamenei, but since the polarizing presidency of Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fissure has emerged between traditional, “mainstream” Principlists and an even more radical offshoot. Those differences, however, are merely over who has the strongest revolutionary credentials. For example, traditional Principlists worked with Rouhani to promote last summer’s nuclear deal. By contrast, radical Principlists see the agreement as a Western plot to transform the very nature of the regime.

In his speech Wednesday, Khamenei also gave lie to the notion that the relatively pragmatic candidates are “moderate” in the Western sense of the word. As he put it, “in following the straight path, some may go faster and some slower.” In other words, politicians may be pragmatic, as long as they remain faithful to the revolution. In this election, some Principlists – led by Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani – have formed an alliance with less zealous revolutionaries. But it’s a mistake to interpret such a partnership as a sign of a softening of the hardliners’ zeal. After all, Larijani just this week earned the endorsement of Qassem Soleimani – commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.

Iran’s elections are not entirely meaningless – they demonstrate everyday Iranians’ hunger for participatory democracy, even when offered only the narrowest array of representatives to choose from. Still, Western analysts’ singular focus on the electoral process tends to miss the larger point: that the Islamic Republic’s elected bodies are subservient to unelected institutions that are dominated by the most dedicated revolutionaries.

Amir Toumaj is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AmirToumaj