Wishful Thinking: The Conservative Hold on Power in Post-JCPOA Iran

Within the Iranian domestic political scene the use of the nuclear program to affect elections has been in place for the past decade or more. Earlier, conservatives within the regime used an agreement between Iranian reformists and the EU3 foreign ministers to label reformists as traitors, spies, and agents of the West.

Unable to recover the crumbling economy, the conservatives leaned on their ability to deliver a nuclear program as their main source of legitimacy to a public weary of years of hardship. In 2009, however, splits within the conservatives started to appear as President Ahmadinejad attempted to reach an agreement on nuclear fuel exchange. The deal was ultimately unable to be reached largely due to the efforts of opponents from Ahmadinejad’s fellow conservatives.

The election of President Rouhani in 2013 came as both a shock as well as an indication that the decade of crippling sanctions had finally taken their toll not only on the people of Iran but on the Iranian ruling elites as well. His election also represented a major shift in the political landscape of Iranian politics. Running as a moderate, Rouhani emerged victorious from a group dominated by conservatives. During the election Ayatollah Khamenei stressed the need for continued resistance against Western forces and warned against those who felt that compromise with the West would lead to positives results. Rouhani maintained that Iran had a right to its nuclear enrichment goals but also advocated for a somewhat softer stance, while also advocating for increased diplomacy with the West to work toward lifting Iran from its diplomatic and economic isolation. His final numbers in the election showed not only that an overwhelming number of Iranians favored a more moderate approach to domestic and foreign policy but also caused a reevaluation of the opinion that Khamenei had absolute political control over Iran.

The popular consensus now is that the nuclear deal between Iran and the West will change the balance of power in Iranian domestic politics in favor of moderate forces. There will also be considerable posturing by the various players within the political elite to claim credit for the deal in order to enforce their positions in upcoming Parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections. There is also agreement, unfortunately, that much of the money influx from the lifting of sanctions will be squandered due to widespread corruption or diverted into the military machine to continue Iran’s numerous proxy wars within the region.

Keen to defray credit for the agreement benefiting moderates and to prevent a Rouhani victory lap, conservatives were quick to call for a Parliamentary review of the nuclear deal, headed by Ali Reza Zakani, and pounced on Rouhani when he vigorously opposed it. Principalists, a faction of the parliamentary conservatives, attacked Rouhani claiming it was their right and duty to conduct such a review. When Khamenei came out firmly on their side, their hard won victory damaged Rouhani. Khamenei, while backing the negotiations, has ultimately not come out and approved or disapproved the deal, thereby spurring additional motivation to those attacking Rouhani.

Real reform would largely undermine the grip and control that the ruling elite currently has on power. This reform, however, would in large part consist of a continued movement towards more normalized relations with the outside global community and the creation of a domestic environment that promotes foreign investment, both of which are strongly opposed by conservatives. But it could well be the overwhelming interest in retaining power will ultimately force the conservatives’ hands. With oil prices still quite low due to a strategic effort on the part of regional rival Saudi Arabia, Iranian economic woes continue. An additional wildcard in determining where the future of Iranian domestic politics are headed could well reside with the Ayatollah himself. At 75, Khamenei still has no heir apparent and his death will likely bring about a fierce competition to choose a successor. Given the level of power still innate to his position, this will be a major factor in determining the path Iran ultimately takes.

It is likely that conservatives will continue to move along their path to marginalize the impact of any economic benefit in the wake of the nuclear agreement and, considering the level of control that Khamenei possesses over the state-run media, it will be difficult for Rouhani to counter conservative spin. Also, with conservatives effectively controlling the state’s purse strings, it is likely that they could also prevent any real economic improvements from reaching the general public where it would benefit Rouhani’s pledge to restore the nation’s economy. Additionally, the upcoming Parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections will hold the real key to the Iranian future. In a move that again does not bode well for the reformists, a prominent hardliner, Guardian Council secretary Ahmad Jannati, was chosen to head the committee that will oversee the elections. In his role Mr. Jannati has the ability to declare candidates ‘unworthy’ to run for election and will likely do so to those supportive of Rouhani to ensure that the full authority of the Ayatollah will still remain unchallenged through any electoral process.

But the question still remains: can the conservatives find a way to make the adjustments needed to move the country forward in a manner acceptable by the nation’s populace? Is it possible to find a sort of middle ground as nations such as China have found, where there is a maintained political orthodoxy balanced against the expansion of civil liberties and the enactment of economic reforms such as expanded industrial privatization, increased foreign investment, and the creation of a more accommodating international posture? It is possible. But in the short term it is unlikely that any real change will occur. Currently, even though Rouhani was swept into office with impressive support, there appears to be no person or group with the real depth of power needed to threaten the conservative stranglehold on domestic leadership. Given the current generational shift and deep-rooted frustrations with the government, coupled with Iran’s long history of both political and social unrest, however, it is likely just wishful thinking if the conservatives think that this will hold for the long-term without any real substantive change on their part in the domestic status quo