By Aram Mirzaei

Three weeks ago, the first round of the Iranian parliamentary elections & Assembly of Experts elections took place. The elections for the clerical institutional body known as the “Assembly of Experts” is considered to be crucial, as they are believed to be faced with the choice of selecting a new Supreme Leader. Understanding the complexity of Iran’s political system requires a historical insight.

The historical political landscape in Iran

The Islamic Republic stands unique as a political system in this world, with a complex history of democratic and Islamist features. However what most people fail to comprehend is the role of the Shia clergy in Iranian politics. The Shia clergy have a long history of influence over Iranian politics, and have been at the forefront of mobilizing the masses against what it has considered to be oppression and foreign meddling.[1]

The Iranian state, under the Turkic Qajar dynasty was in a state of decline since the early 19th century. It had made several major humiliating concessions due to military losses against the Russian Empire in 1813 and 1828, while also being a pawn in an imperial game between the Russians and the British.[2] These concessions included economic advantages for European merchants against the native Iranian merchants (Bazariis). One of these concessions was a secret agreement signed by the Shah of Iran and a British company in March 1890, granting the British control over a significant part of Iranian economy. The concessions gave the company monopoly over all Iranian tobacco, including the internal sale, trade, and growing of tobacco. Iranian farmers would have to sell their tobacco to the British company and then buy it back again to use. This concession would affect not only the wealthy landowners and traders in the tobacco business, but also small merchants and peasants who depended on tobacco sales. [3]

The Tobacco protest

The clergy’s power was demonstrated already in 1891-92 with the Tobacco protest against this concession.

During the spring of 1891 mass protests against the Tobacco company began to emerge in some major cities in Iran. Initially the powerful Bazariis led the opposition because their income and livelihood were at stake. The protest movement was organized by affluent merchants such as Hajj Mohammad Malek Tojjar, who appealed to the clergy for their support in opposing the concession.[4]

The clergy were a valuably ally of the Bazariis since many religious leaders sought to protect national interests from foreign rule. The Shia clergy had for centuries played an important role in Iranian society as they ran religious schools, maintained charity and endowments, acted as arbiters and judges and were seen as intermediaries between God and humans. Such concessions by the Shah, especially to non-Muslims, meant that their position was threatened as well.[5] Furthermore, the clergy had ties to the various merchant families and guilds while also holding a financial stake in the tobacco business, due to the tobacco being grown on their own Waqf land.[6][7]

In the autumn of 1891 the movement spread to Esfahan and Mashhad. By December, it had reached its culmination in the nationwide boycott of the use and sale of tobacco, as a result of a religious verdict issued by Grand Ayatollah (Marja-e-Taqlid) Mirza Hassan Shirazi, the top religious leader based in Iraq. The verdict was universally observed, even by non-Muslim Iranians. This universality of observance amazed observers as it was reported that even the Shah’s wives and servants had refused to smoke or serve him Tobacco. [8]

The shah was forced to cancel the internal concession, but further disorders ensued and in January in Tehran, troops fired on a growing crowd of male and female demonstrators and killed seven or more people. This event brought the definitive end of the whole concession, which the shah was forced to cancel. The local head of the tobacco company agreed to cancellation and to a cessation of operations, although Iran was forced to pay exaggerated compensation for company expenses.

Constitutional revolution of 1906

As the Qajar dynasty continued to deteriorate, the role of the clergy again became crucial in Iran and its subsequent constitutional revolution of 1906. The three main groups of the coalition seeking a constitution were the Bazarii merchants, the clergy, and a small faction of radical reformers. The shared goals were to end the corruption and weakness of the royal government, and ending the dominance of foreign powers.[9] Again the clergy and Bazariis (merchants) became allies since they shared the same goals, both political and financial.

In the summer of 1906 approximately 12,000 men camped out in the gardens of the British Embassy. Many gave speeches, many more listened, in what has been called a `vast open-air school of political science’ studying constitutionalism.[10]

The first demands for a parliament (Majles) were born, with a goal to limit the power of the Shah. In August of 1906, The Shah, Mozaffar Al-Din agreed to allow a parliament, and the first elections were held later that fall. 156 members were elected, with an overwhelming majority belonging to the merchant class of Tehran. October 1906 marked the first meeting of the majles, who immediately gave themselves the right to make a constitution, thereby becoming a Constitutional Assembly. [11]

Today’s political landscape

Iranian Principlists and the Islamic Republic

While the term “conservative” is difficult to apply on Iranian society, the existence of a conservative movement, or as they prefer to be called, Principlists, is a reality. The Iranian political spectrum can somewhat loosely be defined as a division between the Islamic left (Reformists) and the Islamic right (Principlists).

The Iranian Principlist bloc of today emerged as a response to the rising power of the reformist movement, headed by known figures such as former Iranian President and cleric Mohammad Khatami and to some extent former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the richest people in the country. [12][13]
Iranian principlism however dates further back in history. It roots back to the early 20th century with the constitutional revolution, which demonstrated the power of the clerical class. As the Qajar dynasty were disposed by Reza Khan (later Reza Shah Pahlavi), a man who clashed many times with the clergy. [14] The Shah had initiated a set of reforms aimed at modernizing the country. Along with this modernization effort the Women’s Awakening movement gained strength. This movement sought the elimination of the traditional Iranian chador from Iranian society. This movement was backed by the Shah who sought inspiration from western clothing for his society. The religious establishment were fiercely opposed to this and organized protests against obligatory Western dressing in Mashhad, resulting in the Shah ordering his soldiers to shoot at the crowds protesting. [15]

The policies of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the son and successor of Reza Shah Pahlavi, further sowed division between the clergy and the royal court. The young Shah’s role in the 1953 coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Dr Mohammad Mossadeq, the failed “white revolution” which only served to further accelerate his unpopularity. Once more the clergy assumed a position as anti-imperialists in the Iranian political spectrum, arguing that the Shah was a dictator put in place by a non-Muslim Western power, the United States.[16] As witnessed several times before, the clergy and the Bazariis played a crucial role in forming the Iranian political landscape, this was also the case in 1979 when the clergy and the merchants came together to overthrow the monarchy.

The Islamic revolution in Iran brought about a total change to the political landscape of Iran as Iranian politics was now contained within a Islamic framework, free from foreign meddling, imperialism and dependency. [17] This is the platform which the modern Principlist movement still use in their political campaigns.

A declaration issued last year by the Association of Combatant Clerics and the Association of the Seminary Teachers of Qom serves as the Principlist “manifesto.” But this document has little to say on bread-and-butter issues such as job creation, economic development, or even foreign policy. It focuses instead on broad conservative principles: loyalty to Islam and the Revolution, obedience to the Supreme Leader, and devotion to the principle of Velaayat-e Faghih, or rule by an Islamic jurist.

This set of principles implicitly endorses the status quo and the current power structure. It is also a response to the reformist parties’ emphasis on change: free elections, freedom of the press and assembly and individual rights, and, implicitly, curbs on the almost unlimited power of the Supreme Leader, and limits on the authority of the Guardian Council to disqualify candidates for elective office.[18]

The Principlists include dozens of small cliques and political organizations each centered around a limited number of politicians, activists, clerics, and members of parliament and state institutions.

The conservatism of these groups varies too. They fall generally into four categories:

Traditional conservatives may stand firm on social issues, such as Islamic dress for women and bans on gender mixing. But they are more open to possible reconciliation with centrist reformers, albeit with many caveats.

Another group of new conservatives cares less about social issues, but they are closely aligned with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military-security nexus whose influence has grown markedly in recent years.

A third conservative wing is closely allied to the bazaar merchants, importers, and shopkeepers.

A fourth branch, championed by former Ahmadinejad supporters, is populist in temperament and intent.[19]

The conservatives seem driven principally by one aim: to consolidate their hold on power and control of state institutions. Increasingly, they treat their political rivals as if they were no longer legitimate political players. Almost invariably, they speak of the reformist parties as the “seditious current,” a reference to the widespread protests after Ahmadinejad’s contested re-election in 2009.

In their drive for unity, almost all the conservative politicians now label themselves “Osul-garayan”, or “Principlists.” Prodded by leading conservatives, such as Assembly of Experts President Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani, Principlists from several conservative organizations have created a council of 15–also known as the council of the 7 plus 8–to draw up a common platform and list of candidates for parliament.

In a letter to Mahdavi-Kani in August, over 190 members of parliament urged unity and common purpose rather than an election scramble for seats among the Principlists. Conservative newspapers like Kayhan have not only pushed the unity message but warned that the coming elections will be fateful for the triumph of conservative cause against the “enemies” of the Islamic revolution.

The council of 15 has two committees. The primary committee of seven is composed of two representatives from each of the country’s two politically most important clerical organizations:

  • The Association of the Combatant Clerics of Tehran (Jame’eh-ye Ruhaniyyat-e Mobarez) is headed by Mahdavi-Kani.
  • The Association of the Seminary Teachers of Qom (Jame’eh-ye Modarresin-e Howzeh-ye Elmi-ye Qum) is headed by Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi.

The committee of seven includes three top conservatives close to Iran’s supreme leader.

  • Ali Velayati is Khamenei’s advisor on foreign affairs.
  • Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, a former speaker of parliament, is related to Khamenei by marriage.
  • Habibollah Asghar-Owladi is head of a political party with strong ties to bazaar merchants.

The second committee of eight consists of:

Six representatives of the principal conservative parties and movements in the Majles

  • The current speaker of parliament Ali Larijani
  • And the former Revolutionary Guards commander and Tehran Mayor Baqer Qalibaf.[20]

Iranian Reformists – a Tumultuous Experiment

The reformist era of Iran is generally accepted to have occurred between the years 1997-2005, during President Khatami’s two terms in office. [21]

Khatami and his allies were the remnants of the Islamic left faction, hardliners who from 1979 to 1989 were the driving force behind many of the Islamic Republic’s signature policies. Domestically this included violently eliminating the political opposition to the Islamic Republic, enforcing strict Islamic morality through revolutionary committees and nationalizing Iran’s economy. They were behind the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran and were instrumental to the founding of Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the first decade of the newly found Islamic Republic they had been strongly backed by the Vali-e Faghi or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and governed through the Executive under then Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi (1981-1989). [22]

Between 1988 to 1991, with the end Iran-Iraq War, the fall of the Soviet Union and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, political stabilization of the regime through social change, the Islamic left’s fortunes rapidly declined. Firstly the end of the war put an end to the state of emergency under which the Islamic left exercised their influence. Secondly, the collapse of the Soviet Union delegitimized the statist economy which had been used to govern the Iranian economy in the first decade of the Islamic Republic. [23] Thirdly, the passing of Ayatollah Khomeini, the staunch backer of the Islamic left was a huge blow to their political power.

Their rivals, the Islamic right faction, capitalized on this by selecting their own Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the new supreme leader and Rafsanjani as president, eliminating the Premiership from the constitution, veto-ing Islamic left election candidates through the Guardian Council, purging them from unelected state institutions, and more. Having been eliminated from the system, the Islamic left entered a period of retreat in which it reassessed its place in the Islamic Republic. They emerged from this process “reformed”, the namesake of their faction.[24] So far, there have been two waves of Reformism in Iran.

The First Wave: The 2nd Khordad Movement

After having lost their standing in the Islamic Republic’s powerful non-elected institutions, the newly formed Reformists under Mohammad Khatami regained political power by appealing to Iran’s restless society yearning for change, and channel popular frustration through elected institutions.[25]

In an interview with the Rah-e No newspaper in 1998, Reformist theoretician Saeed Hajjarian characterized this strategy for achieving their goals as “pressure from below, negotiations from above.” The barren political landscape in Iran during the 1997 presidential election, including the lackluster Islamic right candidate Nateq Nouri, and the tacit support of Rafsanjani who by this time had distanced himself from Khamenei and the Islamic right, resulted in a landslide victory for Khatami. [26]

The initial shock of Khatami’s electoral victory did not faze the Islamic right who rallied under the banner of “preserving the principles of the revolution”, thus rebranding themselves as the Principlists.

The reformists won the Majlis elections of 2000, and Khatami was re-elected in 2001, the Principlists however were able to effectively block them through institutional obstructionism. In the 2004 Majlis elections, many prominent Reformist politicians were deemed unfit to stand for office by the powerful Guardian Council, an appointed and constitutionally-mandated 12-member council that wields considerable power and influence in the Islamic Republic. This strategy crippled the pillars of Reformist theoretician Hajjarians strategy of “negotiating from above”, by excluding them from political institutions.[27]

The failure of the Reformists to win the election in 2005, marked the death of the first wave of the Reform Movement.

The Second Wave: The Green Movement

Ahmadinejad’s first term proved difficult for both Reformists and some of their constituents, especially middle-class urbanites who were not attracted to the new president’s platform of social justice. By the 2009 presidential election Reformists re-emerged after four years of irrelevance showing signs that they would make serious push to win that election. Rallying around ex-Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, they used a modern election campaign and social media such as Facebook and Twitter to not only gain supporters but also create a mechanism that would allow them to mobilize large numbers of people in a short period of time. [28]

While the first incarnation of Hajjarian’s “pressure from below, negotiations from above” had failed, it was reinvented by the 2009 election campaign and its aftermath. By conducting an electrifying electoral campaign and using social media, Reformists would use the deep discontent that had built up during Ahmadinejad’s four years in office among certain segments of the population, and bring “pressure from below” by mobilizing this group onto the streets.

This gave Reformists a new weapon to wield against Principlists in case of perceived electoral irregularities, using popular pressure to overturn the election results, elect Mousavi as president and thus restore their ability to “negotiate from above”. [29]

On June 12th, they used this weapon when the election results were announced in favor of the incumbent Ahmadinejad. While there are no actual evidence that proves electoral fraud, the widespread perception among certain segments of the Iranian population took to the streets en masse. This was made possible through the heavy use of social media by the Reformists. The Green movement, once more gave birth to Hajjarians “pressure from below, negotiations from above”. [30]

It did however not take long until the “pressure from below” resulted in severe consequences for the Reformists as their movement most resembles the color revolutions of former Soviet bloc countries such as Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. In color revolutions one faction within a regime creates “pressure from below” by mobilizing popular energy and channeling it into “negotiating from above” and improves its own position in the regime, usually in the context of allegations of electoral fraud. While this strategy was successful up to a point in the semi-authoritarian former Soviet bloc, in Iran the Principlist faction and IRGC rapidly mobilized to crush the uprising. Through the act of applying popular pressure on the IRI, the Reformists had crossed a ‘red-line’ and from this point were effectively purged from the system, once again destroying their ability to “negotiate from above”.[31]

Iranian elections of 2016

Due to changing allegiances and loose alliances, there has been some confusion as to how to label the parliamentary elections. Reformists have been in a celebratory mood since the Feb. 26 elections. Conservative media, on the other hand, have tallied votes in a manner that shows them having an edge.

According to Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, the country’s next parliament can be divided into three factions: Reformists, moderates and Principlists. By comparison, Rahmani Fazli said the outgoing parliament can mostly be divided among two Principlist groups.[32]

At stake in the elections were the composition of Iran’s 290-seat parliament and the 88-member Assembly of Experts. Membership in the latter body, which chooses and oversees the work of Iran’s supreme leader, is restricted to Muslim clerics.[33]

The current Vali-e Faghih, Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is in poor health at age 76, making it likely that the incoming Assembly of Experts will have to choose his successor at some point during its eight-year term. For this reason, the outcome of the Assembly election has been considered especially important.

The precise makeup of Iran’s new Majles is not yet known, as there will have to be run-off elections in April to fill about 15 percent of the seats.[34][35]

The Principlists have voiced concerns and in some cases outright opposition to the nuclear deal that Rouhani, with Supreme Leader Khamenei’s blessing, reached with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Under that agreement, Iran has made sweeping concessions, including dismantling much of its civilian nuclear program and submitting to the most intrusive-ever International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection regime, in exchange for the US and its European Union allies lifting the economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. [36]

The Principlists have also criticized the Rouhani government for its plans to sell off some of Iran’s oil resources to the Western oil giants, advocating instead the continuation of a nationally focused “resistance economy.” [37][38]

The electoral gains for the Reformist Rouhani-Rafsanjani faction were especially found in Tehran, which, with a population of some 16 million, is home to more than one-fifth of Iran’s population.

The Reformists won all 30 of Tehran’s parliamentary seats and 15 of Tehran’s 16 seats in the Assembly of Experts. Prior to the elections, the Rouhani government had the support of just two Tehran MPs.

The Reformists improved their showing in other large Iranian cities, albeit less dramatically than in Tehran. Its Principlist rivals, however, have reportedly won most of the smaller towns and rural areas.[39]

News organizations have provided different estimates of the relative strengths of the rival groupings in parliament. The BBC said “hardliners” won in excess of 150 seats and the “reformists” 111, while Reuters and Al Jazeera gave “conservatives” between 35 and 40 percent of the seats, “reformists” 30 percent and independents slightly more than 15 percent.[40][41]

The Reformists managed to draw support from prominent figures such as former president Khatami and even noted social conservatives previously associated with the Principlists, one of those being the current parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, who hails from one of Iran’s most powerful clerical establishment families. Larijani’s reelection was also endorsed by the Revolutionary Guards’ most prominent leader, Quds Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani.

While the recent elections have been heralded as giving the Reformists the upper hand, it has also been a victory for the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, despite the Principlists losing a number of seats in the elections. The election has boosted the Islamic Republic’s claims to legitimacy and brought more technocratic figures into government while allowing most Iranians to vent a bit of their frustration into the electoral system. So far, Rouhani and his allies have not indicated a desire for earth shattering changes in Iran.[42]

These elections will not change Iran’s foreign policy, nor will they jeopardize the nuclear deal. Rouhani must hope for a cooperative parliament which can help Rouhani fulfill his campaign promises.

A major objective of the Rouhani government is to rewrite the regulations governing the country’s oil industry to entice Western investment. Its hope is that a flood of European and ultimately US investment, seeking to take advantage of Iran’s abundant supply of skilled cheap labor and natural resources, will buoy the economy to provide it with sufficient political support and cover to eliminate the little that remains of the social concessions made to the working class in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah’s bloody, US-backed dictatorship.[43]

  2. Moaddel, Mansoor. “Shi’i Political Discourse and Class Mobilization in the Tobacco Movement of 1890-1892.” Sociological Forum, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Sep., 1992): p. 455.
  4. Poulson, Stephen. Social Movements in Twentieth-Century Iran. Lexington, 2005,p 87
  5. Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran 1785-1906. University of California, 1969, p. 208.
  6. Keddie, Nikki. Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Tobacco Protest of 1891-92. Frank Cass, 1966, p. 3.
  10. Abrahamian, Ervand, Iran Between Two Revolutions by Ervand Abrahamian, Princeton University Press, 1982, p.84
  14. Abrahamian,94
  15. Gold, Karen, The case for God, by Karen Gold, 2009
  16. Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini (2001).
  20. Ebadi, Shirin, Iran Awakening, by Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni, Random House New York, 2006, p.180
  22. Ibid
  23. Ibid
  25. Ibid
  26. Ibid
  27. Ibid
  28. Ibid
  29. Ibid
  30. Ibid
  33. Ibid
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