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New Iranian hard-line group seeks to expel parliament speaker from their camp

Iranian hard-line conservatives are planning to exclude moderate-leaning conservative parliament Speaker Ali Larijani from their ranks.

In the past three months, conservatives have formed a new group called Shaja (Coalition of the Revolution), hoping to reclaim parliament from the Reform movement coalition in the February election.

The Reformists — and the Reformist-backed government of President Hassan Rouhani — have lost much of their social capital because, critics say, its parliamentarians haven’t fulfilled their promises of political and civil rights reforms. The party is also accused of economic mismanagement in the face of US sanctions, following Washington’s departure from the 2015 nuclear deal.

Mohammad-Reza Bahonar, a senior conservative figure and general-secretary of the Principlist Islamic Society of Engineers political group, said conservatives expect to win parliament. “The atmosphere in the society is such that the public is prepared to vote for [conservatives], and we should attract people’s votes with our coalition,” he said at a July 5 meeting of the society.

The conservatives may be right. When Reformist supporters have lost hope in the party in the past, their voter turnout has been dismal and conservatives have won, as they did in the 2005 presidential election and 2004 parliamentary election.

However, the conservatives are gravely divided.

It appears that Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a three-time presidential election candidate, has left Shaja, while the once-influential Combatant Clergy Association political group is seeking to revive itself ahead of the election — something conservatives appear to welcome. Meanwhile, the powerful hard-line group Endurance Front, under the leadership of ultraconservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, has refrained from joining the coalition.

Nonetheless, despite this disagreement, they all have one common goal: expelling Larijani from the camp for good.

Since Rouhani came to power in 2013, he and Larijani have cooperated closely on various issues. Early on, they reached a deal under which Larijani would help get the president’s Cabinet approved, as long as Larijani’s choices were among them or received top spots in some influential organizations such as government-run financial institutions.

The most significant part of their alliance was the 2015 nuclear deal’s ratification in parliament, despite hard-liners’ efforts to keep it from passing. This triggered hatred for Larijani among hard-liners and conservatives, who accused him of ignoring their objections to the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In the face of hard-liners’ harsh censure, Reformist figures and some media outlets began throwing their weight behind Larijani for helping Rouhani, an issue that might have played a significant role in widening the gaps between Larijani and his ex-friends.

The anger with Larijani reached its peak when he was labeled a pillar of the “moderate” camp, which is loathed by hard-liners. The moderates are conservatives who have softened their approach on various matters, including negotiating with the United States and social freedoms. The camp has had three leaders: Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was once a conservative but gradually became the beloved figure of Reformists (he died in 2017); Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic of Iran; and Rouhani, Rafsanjani’s protege. Seeing Larijani playing a role largely in line with moderates’ goals irritated hard-liners more than ever.

In the 2016 parliamentary election, the conservative coalition excluded Larijani from its ticket. The Reformists then put him on the ticket of the Hope coalition of Reformist and centrist candidates, which increased tensions between Larijani and hard-liners. In the 2017 presidential election, Larijani threw his weight behind Rouhani, calling him his “buddy,” even as the conservatives had two prominent candidates in the presidential election.

Since the beginning of Rouhani’s second term, Larijani has been rumored to be the 2021 presidential choice of a number of parties in the Reformist coalition, including the influential Sazandegi (Executives of Construction). In reaction, Larijani’s enemies in the conservative camp have sought to highlight this piece of news or rumor in their speeches and in the media to further distance conservatives from Larijani and make it impossible for him to return to the camp.

Now Shaja has publicly refrained from embracing Larijani and his entourage. Bahonar said July 29 that Shaja doesn’t welcome “those conservatives who are now cooperating” with Rouhani’s government. Moreover, according to Iran’s government media organ, the Islamic Republic News Agency, Shaja member Mohammad Hosseini said recently, “Ali Larijani still hasn’t been invited to [Shaja’s] meetings and there have been no discussions about inviting him.”

A number of analysts believe hard-liners’ pressure on Larijani is actually designed to persuade him to stop supporting Rouhani’s government and end his alliance with moderates. However, such a strategy may push Larijani further into the arms of the moderates’ camp.

Nonetheless, while hard-liners and conservatives may assume they are taking revenge on Larijani by kicking him out, Larijani may actually have longed for this day — as he had the bitter experience of running in the 2005 presidential election as the conservative coalition’s sole candidate and seeing them betray him by backing hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad instead.

Abdollah Naseri, a well-known Reformist analyst, said that since 2013, Larijani has gained a reputation as a “wise politician” and wants to keep this label. Naseri said of Larijani in an Entekhab news interview this month, “Under the new circumstances, he considers himself as having an independent position and [plans] to attract the fans of Hassan Rouhani’s administration.”

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