Principlist Camp Seemingly Condemned to Division, Disarray

With barely more than a week left until the 1 March elections, no clear picture has yet emerged, or is likely to, of the principlist coalition that will almost certainly take the helm in the Twelfth Majles. This suggests that the real political battles will begin after the winners are announced. At least three distinct currents within the principlist camp are vying for supremacy, seemingly indifferent to calls from fellow conservatives to put aside their differences and unite around a single slate of candidates. This is especially true for the 30 seats for Tehran, which carry far greater political weight than any others in the legislature. The leading candidates for the three factions are current Majles Speaker Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf of the Coalition Council (SHANA), former MP Mohammadreza Bahonar of the Unity Council, and MP and cleric Morteza Aqatehrani of the Paydari Front.

The newest political hotshot among principlists appears to be hardline ideologue Ali-Akbar Ra’efipur, currently basking in the media glow after announcing the formation of a new conservative faction that he calls “Iran’s Daybreak” (sobh-e Iran). Ultimately, this may prove to be nothing more than the proverbial 15 minutes of fame, but for now Ra’efipur has found political allies both in the Paydari Front and in individuals like Sa’id Mohammad-Eslami, the former commander of the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbia Construction HQ whose presidential hopes in 2021 were dashed by the Guardian Council. Another ally is Mohammadreza Gholamreza, the former deputy minister of interior with IRGC ties who was pressured into resigning. All of them have a common enemy in Qalibaf—a man with IRGC ties of his own—whose political career they would like to end. While Ra’efipur’s platform includes a range of economic and political issues, his choice of “transparency” as the leading plank stands in stark and easily recognizable contrast to Qalibaf’s political style, which can be summed up as lobbying, horse-trading, and mutual back-scratching to a scandalous degree. Confusing the situation is a response to Ra’efipur by a leading figure in SHARAYAN, the year-old coalition of individuals with Paydari affiliations and the Ra’isi administration. That leading figure is Mansureh Ma’sumi-Asl, a commentator on IRIB who stirred up a media controversy in November 2023 when she declared that Iran as a country belonged to none but “hezbollahis.” And yet, despite her anti-Qalibaf position as a member of SHARAYAN, she released a video clip in which she denounced Ra’efipur, without naming him, as a “deviant seditionist.”

The reason for the hostility among political factions that are barely distinguishable in philosophy from one another is personal and driven by competitiveness over shares of political power. All indications up to this point suggest that the more the principlist camp tries to come together on issues at sensitive times like elections, the greater the splintering that results. Shortly after the birth of SHARAYAN, Hamid Rasa’i, the cleric and former MP who was instrumental in its creation, described its raison d’être as a vehicle to disrupt the advancement of the Qalibaf faction SHANA. At the same time, the Paydari Front may be acknowledging its electoral weakness and using the threat of a rival candidate merely as a way to demand a greater share of power from Qalibaf. The Majles speaker’s ultimate goal appears to be a run at the presidency in 2025, which would mean dislodging the incumbent, Ebrahim Ra’isi. An electoral loss might look bad for the cleric who hopes to succeed Ali Khamenei as Iran’s supreme leader, but a loss for Qalibaf in the Majles could spell the end of his political career. Even his fellow conservatives are hardly complimentary about his tenure as speaker, and at least one, Mostafa Purmohammadi, compares him unfavorably to his predecessor in the position, Ali Larijani. Purmohammadi is part of the faction that favors Bahonar and would like to see him replace Qalibaf as speaker. A change in Majles leadership could portend a change in the political direction of the country based on the speaker’s political leaning. If, however, Qalibaf were to hold on and brush off the multiple scandals laid at his door, that would merely prolong the political gridlock that has gripped the country and led to internecine fights in the principlist camp.

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