Principlist Jockeying amid Shaky, Short-Term Marriage of Convenience

With the approaching elections on 1 March, many observers underestimated disagreements within the principlist camp, referring to them as a phony war, but with only four days left before the vote, the jockeying for greater power has all the appearance of hard reality. Seldom has Majles Speaker Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf appeared as politically vulnerable as he does today, resulting in concessions to his Paydari Front rivals who seem intent on grabbing a greater share of power as part of their project of “purification.” Qalibaf and the Paydari Front have in the past traded political accusations.

After a period of great anticipation, Qalibaf’s Coalition Council of principlists (Persian acronym: SHANA) published the supposedly official list of the 30 Majles seats for Tehran, putting him at the top. Placement on the list carries political meaning, showing whom the coalition views as the candidate it will support for the speakership. The Paydari Front’s view of the list differed significantly from SHANA’s. Mohammad-Sadeq Mahsuli, the secretary-general of the Paydari Front, announced that if his group published its own list separate from SHANA’s, it would feature cleric and current MP Morteza Aqatehrani, second in the SHANA list, as the sole leader; if, however, it published a joint list with SHANA, there would be two “heads,” one of them Aqatehrani (and the other unnamed). Aqatehrani himself affirmed that Qalibaf was not the sole lead candidate. In other words, even if Qalibaf’s slate won, the current speaker would not be Paydari’s preferred choice to continue in that role but would have to fight for it. The pound of political flesh that Qalibaf conceded to the Paydari Front included several of his trusted lieutenants, including sitting MPs, who have been eliminated from the slate of candidates: Mojtaba Tavangar, Mohsen Pirhadi, and Abolfazl Amu’i. Pirhadi is displeased enough to grumble publicly. If nominal allies thus pull Qalibaf down from the speaker’s chair, that would be a major blow to his presidential ambitions in 2025, which would in turn smooth the path for President Ebrahim Ra’isi to comfortably win a second term. Indeed, any kind of deal with Qalibaf is anathema to many in the Paydari Front, including Majid Mottaqifar, the group’s spokesman who characterized the joint Paydari/SHANA slate as “unofficial.” Likewise, the Paydari Front outlet Raja News suggested that voters should use their own discretion when evaluating candidates from a slate and not rely solely on recommendations from others.

This and other indicators provide fodder for the analysis in the reformist news outlet Entekhab that the Qalibaf-Paydari alliance is an instance of pragmatic, almost Machiavellian, compromise by the hardline group that goes against the grain of its religio-political absolutism. Qalibaf’s political reputation is that, due to his long-standing modus operandi as a corrupt horse-trader, he taints anyone that is associated with him. Evidence for Qalibaf’s deal-making abilities was readily at hand, with a news report showing that in exchange for the elimination of his allies, Qalibaf has secured the removal of the Paydari-affiliated candidate and sitting MP Bijan Nowbaveh-Vatan, whom he sees as a political enemy. According to Entekhab, the two “branches” of the Paydari Front—one in Tehran run by Mahsuli and Aqatehrani, the other in Qom and close to the heirs of Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi—have parted ways somewhat, with the Tehran crew far more willing to play the political game of compromise and deal-making and, ultimately, ushering in the Paydari Front’s downfall. Perhaps Qalibaf has plans to outplay his temporary Paydari allies, with reports that he is also courting the grassroots religious neighborhood groups known as hay’ats, known for their ideological zeal and loyalty in much the same way as the Paydari Front.

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