Iran’s most recent parliamentary election was held in February. The results staggered both conservatives and reformists. Despite mass disqualification of reformist candidates by the powerful Guardian Council, their coalition with moderates won 121 of 290 seats. On the other side, the conservatives faced a setback, gaining 83 seats, which is a big defeat in comparison to their showing the three previous elections.
The Guardian Council, which is charged with vetting all candidates, is one of the most influential bodies in Iran and is currently controlled by conservatives.
Conservatives are divided into moderates and hardliners, and during the February election, they both went their own way. The hardliners, who wielded the power in the conservative camp, published the conservative ticket, excluding most moderates.
Moderates, meanwhile, who share the same view with reformists on some issues like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the deal on Iran’s nuclear program reached with a group of world powers), formed a coalition with reformists. They both published a single ticket for the election. The results were a triumph for moderates and reformists, and a loss for hardliners.
Now, a big battle is underway with the new parliament on the horizon. On May 28, the parliament will be inaugurated and, a few days later, a speaker will be chosen through an election inside the House. The competition is between Mohammad Reza Aref and Ali Larijani.
Aref is one of the reformist camp leaders who pulled out of the 2013 presidential election in favor of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani. Larijani, as the current speaker in parliament, is a pivotal moderate figure who did his best to defend Rouhani’s foreign policy and the nuclear deal, which was signed last year.
In the parliamentary election, Aref ran on reformist ticket and Larijani nominated himself on an independent ticket, which was a blow to hardliners. After that, the reformists announced their support for him.
A few days after final results of the election came out, different media outlets in Iran started analyzing and reporting on the issue of the next parliamentary speaker.
Despite repeated reports regarding the possibility of an agreement between Larijani and Aref, that doesn’t seem to have happeend yet. On April 3, Aref said, “We haven’t made a deal about who sits on the seat of the parliament speaker. Mr. Larijani just phoned, and congratulated me on my victory in the election.”
More recently, on May 21, Aref confirmed that he will “certainly run for the speakership, however, we would like to solve the speakership issue through cooperation with the other side, and we are waiting for their decision.” This remark may suggest that an agreement between Aref and Larijani is not too far off. However, Heshmatollah Fallahatpsihe, an independent MP, told The Diplomat: “Larijani’s and Aref’s political behaviors demonstrate that there will be no agreement between them. For sure, we will face a competitive election in the parliament.”
The election results forced key figures of the hardliners’ camp, such as Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, who was once the parliamentary speaker, to leave the parliament after 16 years of dominance over the house. Now, with hardliners in a minority, they may be forced to accept Larijani over the reformist Aref.
Larijani is hated among hardliners for his moderate views and his support for Rouhani. He has been seriously attacked verbally and once physically by them, but destiny has left them with no choice.
One hardliner, Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a former member of parliament, speaking to The Diplomat, said: “With attention to [the] number of conservatives in the parliament, I believe Ali Larijani is the best we have.”
Inside the Reformist camp, there is a disagreement over whom to back. Some believe Aref isn’t suited to be the next parliamentary speaker as he doesn’t have the experience and ability to manage the House. On the other hand, some opine that Aref, having won the highest number of votes in the election, deserves to be the next speaker.
Ali Tajernia, a reformist analyst and former MP, told a local outlet: “Aref gained the highest votes in the election, but Larijani was placed second in his own city. Then, for respecting the public opinion, Aref should be the speaker. Plus, Aref played an important and strategic role in Rouhani’s victory in the presidential election. Thus, if he hadn’t withdrawn, Rouhani wouldn’t have been here, and the reformists would not have won the election like now.”
Some reformists are urging both Larijani and Aref to sit down for a negotiation. Hossein Marashi, the spokesperson for the influential reformist party Kargozaran told a local daily, “We don’t want to ignore Larijani and be inattentive towards him. Larijani and Aref should talk with each other.”
Meanwhile, some reformists are openly supporting Larijani and believe he can deal with the hardliners much better than Aref. Reformist MP Masoud Pezeshkian praised Larijani, saying, “The fact is Larijani’s performance in parliament has been impeccable on issues like passing the bill on the JCPOA. I believe most of the MPs will vote for Larijani.”
Moreover, reformist analyst Sadegh Zibakalam said notes that “a parliament led by Larijani would have more influence, power, and efficiency. Then, Aref should be the deputy of the parliament speaker.”
However, it seems that Mohammad Khatami, the current leader of the reformists, has put his weight behind Aref. According to Ali Sofi, a senior member of the reformist camp, Khatami did not accept a number of requests by moderate leaders pushing him to back Larijani.
Rouhani and his administration haven’t stated their position regarding the upcoming election in the parliament. Reformists expect Rouhani to support Aref for what he did in the 2013 presidential election and moderates assume the administration should back Larijani for his support for the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, popular politician Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mentor to Rouhani, hasn’t stated his position regarding Aref or Larijani either. He recently denied reports about his support for Aref in the upcoming election in the parliament.
Heshmatollah Falahatpishe, an independent MP, told The Diplomat that he believes “in general, the Rouhani administration has a tendency towards Aref to save its coalition with reformists. However, they haven’t stated their support.”
“Meanwhile, some of the senior members of the government are supporters of Larijani,” he added.
Daryush Ghabnari, a former reformist MP, told The Diplomat that “the Rouhani administration doesn’t seek to show who they support for the speakership. They don’t want to get in a fight with the next speaker over who they backed in the election.”
Mohammad Ashrafi Esfahani, a high ranking member of Rouhani’s government, told a local news site that Rouhani might have political reasons to support Larihani: “It is better off if Larihani and Aref reach an agreement to hand in the speakership to one another every year. But since this year is the last year of Rouhani’s first term of presidency, Larijani’s sitting on the seat of the speaker will play an important role in Rouhani’s success in the next presidential election.”
The crucial votes of independent MPs
Currently, neither the reformists, with 121 seats, nor conservatives, with 83 seats, have the upper hand or a majority in the 290-seat parliament. The independent MPs, who surprisingly won 81 seats, will have the final say on who will become the next speaker. It is still not known who they will vote for, but it is crystal clear that their decision is crucial.
In an interview with The Diplomat, Falahatpishe, an independent, notes, “The independent MPs haven’t made their final choice. They are participating in both conservatives’ and reformists’ meetings. It seems like Aref and Larijani both have equal supporters among independents.”
He added, “What’s important here is that the number of independent MPs has made them crucial, and their decision on the election day will make Larijani or Aref the speaker.”
Darush Ghanbari, a former reformist MP, told The Diplomat: “I’m aware that 127 MPs support Aref, and 110 MPs support Larijani. However, it is still not known what the decision of independent MPs will be.”
Rohollah Faghihi is a journalist based in Iran.