2016 is going to be a big year in Iranian politics

President and Assembly candidate Hassan Rouhani (via)

This is another one of those “welcome to 2016” pieces, but less snarky, because this really is a story that bears watching for the next few weeks and that could go in a number of directions. Iran is holding two elections on February 26: for the Majles (parliament) and for the Assembly of Experts. Both are important, but the latter may be the more critical of the two–the Assembly, whose members are supposed to serve for eight years (the current term was extended to ten years in order to allow it and the parliamentary election to occur simultaneously), is responsible for “supervising” the Supreme Leader, though in reality it does little of that, but it’s also responsible for selecting a new Supreme Leader upon the death or removal of the incumbent. Considering that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 76, odds are pretty good that this next Assembly will have to exercise that particular responsibility.

It’s not terribly surprising, then, that Iranian moderates (I’m going to use “conservatives” and “moderates” here even though Iranian politics are a lot more complicated and a lot more inscrutable than that simplistic terminology might suggest) are trying very hard to win the 59 Assembly seats they’d need to select the next Supreme Leader (or at least win enough to block conservatives from getting to 59). Three high-profile moderates are running for seats in the Assembly: former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (yes, Khomeini’s grandson really is a moderate), and current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The hope is that their coattails (particularly those of the very popular Rouhani) will be long enough to sweep other moderates into the Assembly. If they get enough votes, the moderates will be able to appoint the chairman of the Assembly and will be in a position to replace Khamenei (assuming he dies sometime over the next eight years) with their own candidate, or even to replace him with a leadership council, which is Rafsanjani’s preferred choice.

The other thing Rouhani can do, given his profile and popularity, is try to ensure a reasonably fair election (for both bodies) by challenging the Guardian Council to allow moderate candidates to run. The Guardian Council is supposed to vet candidates for office based on their “qualifications,” which in practice generally means that they exclude enough supposed moderates to ensure that conservatives will win. In 2004, the Guardian Council disqualified nearly 2400 potential Majles candidates, including 80 incumbents, for ideological reasons, effectively throwing the election to conservatives before it was actually held. Rouhani has been arguing that the Council should be a “supervisor,” not an “administrator,” which in his usage basically means that it shouldn’t have its finger on the scales. Looming over this process is the specter of the Green Revolution, both literally, because of the possibility of renewed unrest if the public feels the election has been rigged, and literally, because the Guardian Council will be reviewing how potential candidates reacted to the 2009 uprising when determining whether or not they can stand for office.

Conservatives have been hitting back at the three moderate leaders. Rouhani has been a frequent target all along, particularly around his perceived weakness on the nuclear talks, but the attacks on him have become more vehement as the elections approach and as Rouhani has started using the capital he earned from completing the nuclear deal in order to pursue his agenda in other arenas. Khomeini is being attacked as too young and inexperienced to be a legitimate Assembly candidate, with opponents saying that he’s just a pawn for Rafsanjani. The latter, who is Rouhani’s political mentor in addition to being an important public figure in his own right, is essentially being accused of sedition for having stood up for protesters’ right to protest back in 2009. More worrying than the verbal attacks against these three is the recent spate of physical attacks on reformist candidates, which could be spontaneous but have the feel of an unofficially official Revolutionary Guard/Basij operation, like all those tragic mishaps that keep happening to foreign embassies in Tehran.

A fair amount of Iran’s behavior over the past several months can be explained by the state of its internal politics, with some very unfortunate innocent bystanders getting caught up in the conflict. The sentencing of American reporter Jason Rezaian, for example, was likely done so that the judiciary, controlled by conservatives, could show Rouhani, basking in the glow of his completed nuclear deal, who’s boss, and show him up before the Iranian electorate. Taking heavy-handed actions that show the power of the conservatives in order to discourage moderate and reform-minded Iranian voters (and thereby to depress their turnout) is an old tactic (see the 2004 Majles election, above), and it may work again here. The new fight with the Saudis over Nimr al-Nimr’s execution and the Saudi embassy attack also helps the conservatives–the international tension plays into their ideological message, and the “spontaneous” embassy attack made Rouhani look helpless (though there are signs that the international hostility to the embassy attack may have surpassed what the Revolutionary Guard expected). And you kind of have to wonder if this was part of the reason the Saudis decided to execute Nimr; given that they were objectively better off when conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had Rouhani’s office and Iran was internationally isolated, maybe they’re looking to help bring Iran’s conservatives back into political ascendancy any way they can.

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