The Conservative Principlist movement in Iran is gradually stepping up its control over the Iranian decision-making institutes. This was evident in the new configuration of the Expediency Discernment Council, on which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei released a decision on 21 September.
It was remarkable how the new composition was devoid of former president, Hassan Rouhani, his vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, and former foreign affairs minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
This raises many questions regarding the significance of this step, especially since the non-appointment of the president whose reign has ended represents a change in the regime’s rules in dealing with former presidents, such as Hashimi Rafsanjani, who died on 8 January 2017, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose service was renewed in the latest formation.
Many analyses indicated that the absence of Rouhani’s name from the latest configuration may be based on his wishes since he remains within the decision-making circle as a part of his role as a member of the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for appointing and dismissing the supreme leader of the republic and monitoring his work and is elected every eight years. However, the relative absence of the Moderates movement, which consists of groups from both the Reformists and the Conservative Principlists movements, from the configuration suggests that the regime tends to strengthen the influence of the Conservative Principlist movement and to entrench its control over most, if not all, decision-making institutes, starting with the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Parliament), along with the presidency of the republic and the government, and until the institutions appointed with the manner of the Guardian Council and the Expediency Discernment Council. This speculation was reinforced by the absence of Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, former head of the inspectorate of the leader’s office, who counts as a member of the Traditional Conservatives movement.
This new orientation can be interpreted in the light of many considerations, most notably:
- The Exclusion of the Defenders from the Nuclear Agreement: It was remarkable that most of the officials appointed with conducting nuclear negotiations with the forces of the “5+1” group, which ended in the announcement of a nuclear agreement on 14 July 2015, were marginalized even before the end of President Hassan Rouhani’s second presidential term. This is primarily due to the current failure of the agreements and their possible positive implications on Iran. Explaining further, following the arrival of the agreement in mid-2015, Rouhani’s government and the negotiation delegates launched a strong campaign internally, to pass the agreement and promote the strategic yields that will return to Iran through it. However, former US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, on May 8, 2018, and then reimpose US sanctions on Iran from August 7 of the same year, dealt a blow not only to the nuclear deal but also to the movement that strongly defended him. This was evident in the period before the last presidential election, which was held in 2021. Moreover, the pressure, applied by the Conservative Principlist movement, prompted Mohamed Javad Zarif, Minister of foreign affairs at the time, to refrain from running, despite being called upon by the Moderates movement, such as former President Mohamed Khatami, to make that move. The Guardian Council, which is responsible for deciding the eligibility of candidates, rejected Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri’s nomination for election. After the announcement of Ebrahim Raisi’s victory and the beginning of his trend toward the formation of a new government, one of the first decisions he took was to exclude Abbas Araghchi from the post of the Deputy of Minister of Foreign Affairs for Political Affairs and the head of the negotiation delegation, where Ali Bagheri Kani was appointed to this post. While Raisi’s government is still keen on continuing nuclear negotiations, the promotion of these negotiations is a compulsory option, meaning that Iran cannot easily declare that the negotiations have failed or that the work on the nuclear agreement has halted, even though its commitments to it have been reduced, due to the negative consequences it might face due to it. It was remarkable that President Ibrahim Raisi confirmed during his address to the UN General Assembly on September 21 that “Iran signed the agreement in good faith and fulfilled all its obligations without exception, but America trampled on it.” Here, the “good faith” on which Raisi has focused does not reflect his support for negotiations or agreement, but on the contrary, refers to his strong criticism of the previous Government’s performance and the negotiating team tasked with conducting negotiations with international powers.
- Perpetuating Division within the Conservative Principlists Movement: While this new direction might support the Conservative Principlists Movement’s control over most decision-making institutions, this might be a temporary option, since a division might happen within the movement itself. This might lead to the appearance of battling wings, therefore leading to the distribution of political power resources on more than one side. This represents another basis on which the political system has relied at more than one political stage.
When the Conservative Principlists Movement took control of the decision-making institutes in 2005, after the victory of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the presidential elections, the movement started to gradually divide into more than one political wing. This happened in a way that changed the balance of political powers. Furthermore, the Conservatives movement was divided into the Conservative Principlists and the Traditional conservatives, who, in turn, went into alliance with the Reformist wing that believes in the Al-Faqih State system, later forming the Moderates stream. Here, it can be said that the Iranian regime doesn’t continuously favor the control of a single political movement. Explaining further, such temporary control remains a transitional state that quickly ends with the division of the movement into competing political wings. Many indicators reveal this, like the increase in disparity between the President of the Republic, Ebrahim Raisi, and the head of the Parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, to the extent that many analyses indicate the likelihood that the first has a role in the sparking of a travel crisis regarding the Ghalibaf family’s trip to Istanbul to buy their grandson’s necessities last April. Additionally, the signs of extravagance appeared during the trip at a time when the economic crisis and the livelihood pressures it imposes on Iranians escalated.
- Continued Suffering from the Repercussions of Soleimani’s Assassination: Although almost two years have passed since the assassination of the “Quds Force” leader, member of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qasem Soleimani, on 3 January 2020, it can be said that the Iranian regime has not yet disposed of the consequences of the incident, which continues to impose its impact of Iran’s regional role. Soleimani was responsible for managing Iran’s foreign operations and was able to weave strong ties with all the Shia militias in the region, as well as some Sunni factions. Thus, his absence from the picture led to the disruption of these relations, which is obvious in the case of the Iraq situation. Moreover, his successor, Esmail Qaani was not successful in doing the same role that Soleimani once did. Thus far, the Iraqi political crisis remains unresolved despite almost a year since the holding of the legislative elections, as the main Shia forces have yet to agree on the formation of the Government.
The most important aspect of all is that the assassination of Soleimani following the decision of former US president, Donald Trump, has shaken the Iranian regime. Adding to that, the latter was always keen to avoid engaging in direct conflict, especially if it was with the world’s most superior power, yet Iran suddenly found itself faced with that choice. Although the confrontation only lasted a few hours, it warned the regime that this option was no longer unlikely and that the war by proxy policy would have borders on the ground. The regime’s shakiness due to this limited confrontation was evident in the bringing down of a Ukrainian civilian aircraft on the same night that it launched rocket attacks against two Iraqi bases with US forces, in response to the assassination of Soleimani, on 8 January 2020.
However, the repercussions of Soleimani’s assassination didn’t stop at that, but extended internally, where the regime perpetuated the theory of “conspiracy”, which is essentially based on the presence of an internal movement that implements the external agenda and seeks to support the efforts of foreign powers to undermine the regime’s foundations. Here, the Moderates movement, which supported the nuclear agreement, began to be subject to a larger campaign internally, led by the Conservative Principlist movement, which has always been described as the “diaspora movement”, referring to their constant quest to open up to western nations, and their call for a new nuclear agreement, even if it didn’t meet Iran’s overall goals.
This campaign produced repercussions on the ground. Explaining further, the Moderates movement was sidelined in the 2020 parliamentary elections, which was considered a “competition between the Principlist allies. The Guardian Council also used its pronouncement to disqualify a large number of candidates close to the Moderates movement or a member of it from the 2021 Presidential elections, to the point where Ebrahim Raisi was given a guaranteed victory in the elections.
In light of this, it can be said that the map of political power balances in Iran appears to be heading towards a series of many transformations during the next phase, where its features will gradually become clear as important political entitlements such as the 2024 Parliament and Assembly of Experts elections and 2025 presidential elections approach.