By Kamran Bokhari

Iran is in the midst of significant long-term domestic political change. In the wake of the nuclear deal, there is an emerging struggle between reformists and staunch conservatives. The rift between the government of President Hassan Rouhani and its opponents within the clerical and security establishments will eventually result in a less hawkish regime, although one that will continue to fiercely pursue an assertive foreign policy. The elections that will be held on Feb. 26 will significantly influence the outcome of this struggle for power.

The Fault Line in Iran’s Political System

In order to understand the divide between Iran’s political elite, we must first look at how the country’s political structure was designed. There are two parts to Iran’s political system, which interlock in a complex manner. On one side is the president, along with his Cabinet. The president as the chief executive has responsibility for day-to-day governance. On the other side is the clerical establishment led by the supreme leader, which, through various institutions, especially the judiciary, has oversight over the government as well as parliament. In addition, the supreme leader is commander-in-chief and has control over the military, including the elite force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC-dominated security sector, the clerical establishment and the government are all represented in the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), led by a secretary-general who is appointed by the president. The decisions of the SNSC require final approval from the supreme leader.

The struggle between the democrats and the theocrats among Iran’s Islamist elite is as old as the regime itself. In fact, it was hardwired into the cleric-dominated political system from inception. The country’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, operationalized the concept that experts in Islamic law should have guardianship over the people. This idea is known in contemporary Shia political Islam as Vilayat-e Faqih and is enshrined in the Iranian constitution. Ayatollah Khomeini grafted this notion of clerical rule with Western-style republican political systems. The result was the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is essentially a hybrid of theocratic and democratic systems. The tensions between pragmatists and dogmatists were thus inevitable and have continued over the decades, especially since the death of the founder in 1989.

After his death, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a former two-term president who served from 1981 to 1989, became the supreme leader, while current Expediency Council chairman, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani held the presidency for eight years, from 1989 to 1997. As the father of the pragmatic camp, Rafsanjani’s presidency paved the way for the rise of Iran’s left wing. In 1997, reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami was elected as president and served two terms. During the Khatami era, which lasted until 2005, reformists also dominated the legislature, resulting in major tensions between the establishment and the elected leadership.

Towards the end of the Khatami era, the infighting coupled with escalating tensions with the United States and Iraq were instrumental in the conservative comeback that began with the 2004 parliamentary elections. This conservative revival was reinforced the following year by the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. During the Ahmadinejad years, it seemed that the hardliners had completely taken over the state, especially after the crackdown on the public uprising by reformists and pragmatic conservatives following his controversial re-election in 2009. However, two key trends during the Ahmadinejad presidency proved disastrous for the conservatives. First, Ahmadinejad’s maverick policies deeply divided the conservatives. Second, his bellicose foreign policy positions resulted in crippling sanctions in 2012.

This situation paved the way for Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the 2013 presidential election. Not only was the public ready for change, but the Khamenei-led clerical and military establishments were also opposed to having another hawk succeed Ahmadinejad. The Rouhani administration, less than halfway through its term, was able to clinch a nuclear deal that is currently being implemented. Iran is expected to gain access to as much as $100 billion dollars in frozen cash along with sanctions relief – a process that is due to start in early 2016. This is a major accomplishment for the Rouhani administration and strengthens its position against its opponents, who have accused the government of betraying the founding revolutionary ideals. Since the deal was ratified, there has been a concerted effort from the hardliners who dominate the establishment within Tehran to downplay the impact of the nuclear deal.

Some hardliners have gone so far as to claim that the Rouhani administration essentially imposed the nuclear deal on the supreme leader. At a press conference on Dec. 1, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, who played the lead role in getting parliament to approve the agreement, vehemently rejected such remarks calling them “lame and offensive.” This chasm between pragmatic conservatives like Rouhani and ultra-conservatives also points to a deeper issue. Iran’s religious and political right wing realizes that the nuclear deal represents an unprecedented threat to their ideology and material interests. Already having lost ground in the presidential election, the ultra-conservatives fear the implications of Iran opening up to the world, especially the West. Therefore, there is an effort to limit the scope of re-engagement with the international community.

Watershed Elections

Iran’s domestic political scene has been heating up ahead of the parliamentary and Assembly of Experts (AoE) elections on Feb. 26. The AoE, which meets biannually, is the most powerful institution in the country because it elects the supreme leader, monitors his performance and can even remove him. It’s composed of 86 clerics, who are elected to eight-year terms and vetted by the electoral and legislative watchdog, the Guardian Council.

Controversy around the elections emerged when the Guardian Council declared on Feb. 10 that Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, will not be allowed to run for a seat in the AoE. It was decided that he did not meet the minimum standards for religious knowledge required of candidates. The 43-year-old mid-ranking cleric, who is a close ally of Rouhani and the first member of the founder’s family to register to run in an election, lost an appeal to the Guardian Council on its earlier decision to disqualify him. In a related development, the Council also overturned the disqualification of hundreds of reformist candidates who had registered to run in the parliamentary elections to be held on the same day.

The coming election is expected to be highly significant for two reasons. First, it could pave the way for the pragmatic conservative camp of Rouhani and its reformist allies to weaken the hold of the hardliners who have dominated the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, since 2004. Rouhani and the parliament have been at odds ever since he took office. Considering the divisions on the right and the informal alliance between centrist and left-of-center forces, there is a chance that the president may enjoy more support with the new legislature.

Signs have emerged that moderates may perform well in the upcoming election. Hadi Khamenei, the younger brother of the supreme leader and a well-known reformist cleric, told the Iranian Students News Agency on Dec. 15 that reformists could win some two-thirds of the popular vote. Separately, conservative Member of Parliament Ayatollah Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghadam told news outlet Khabara Online on Dec. 4 that a meeting to build unity among conservatives did not result in an understanding. This disconnect among conservatives is also visible in other ways: while the judiciary chief is a hardliner and an opponent of Rouhani, his older brother Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker, is a strong supporter of the Rouhani government. The older Larijani has been decried as a nominal conservative.

The second reason this election will be pivotal is that the next AoE could elect a new supreme leader, since the incumbent, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 76 and has health issues. Iran has only had one other supreme leader in its history, the founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Therefore, the election of a new leader would signal a new era in Iranian politics.

The rise of Rouhani to the presidency, which has paved the way for the end of the country’s international isolation, and the approaching post-Khamenei era suggest the country in the years ahead will experience a strengthening of pragmatist leadership. That said, the dogmatic forces entrenched within the clerical and security establishment will not cede power easily and are putting up a fierce struggle.

Infiltration vs Extremism

The supreme leader himself is leading the effort to prevent reformists from gaining more power. In remarks published on his website on Sept. 9, Khamenei said that his country would not negotiate with the United States on any issue beyond the nuclear dispute. “Negotiations are a tool for them to influence Iran and to impose their will,” he said. Cognizant of the public mood and the decline of the hardline conservatives, Khamenei and all those further to his right on the Iranian political spectrum fear that contact with the United States will only accelerate the movement towards what Iranian-American sociologist Asef Bayat identified as post-Islamism. In a speech in November, the supreme leader said there was an insidious American effort to influence Iran.

Khamenei warned heads of state institutions about political and cultural infiltration attempts by undercover agents who pose as friends. Such individuals, he remarked, “might be spying, and this is possibly the least important thing he has been assigned to do. He may report on you or your personnel. Sometimes, he may be tasked with doing something more important; he may try to change your mind.” The supreme leader said that even religious bodies among clerics were not immune to such moves and that the enemy was using “money” and “sexual attractions” to effect a “change in beliefs, causes and ideals, views and lifestyle” of the country’s decision-makers.

Acknowledging that the term “infiltration” had been used to weaken political opponents (which, in passing, he said should not happen) the supreme leader emphasized that infiltration was a reality that cannot be ignored. Khamenei added that officials should also be wary of “vilification of people who stress the importance of fundamental values.” Here, he was referring to the allies of the president who criticize their opponents, in particular the Basij militia, as hardliners and extremists. He added that he was not claiming such government officials were willing collaborators with the infiltrators, however, their actions aided the “infiltration project.” Khamenei went on to say that state officials should not undermine the principles and the very foundations of the republic and the revolution.

Separately, on Nov. 2, Fars News Agency quoted IRGC commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari as saying that the nuclear deal had triggered a “new sedition,” which he cautioned would last several years. Jafari said that the United States was more eager than Iran to implement the nuclear deal because its aim of subverting Iran would become easier in the post-deal era, in which “certain officials and their views will be inclined towards the West and liberalism.”

These comments from the clerical and security establishment underscore not just the fear but also the conundrum they are facing. They realize that the country is in dire need of respite from sanctions, especially in light of the threats and opportunities on the foreign policy front. Therefore, they have no choice but to go along with the nuclear deal, which brings with it badly needed foreign investment as well as the space in international forums that Iran requires to be able to shape its foreign policy interests.

The right-wing establishment knows that its attempt to build a “resistance economy” failed because it did not prevent economic decline under the sanctions regime. Even though Rouhani has been unable to achieve significant domestic social, political and economic reform, he continues to enjoy public support for having clinched the nuclear deal. The public and the political left also know that there is no alternative to patiently supporting Rouhani and his pragmatic conservatives in order to slowly make gains against the hardliners. The economic and social changes that will result from the lifting of sanctions not only ideologically undermine the hardliners but also weaken them economically, as the IRGC’s control over energy and industry sectors slowly loosens.

While the right is working to resist changes, it is faced with a political barrage from the president’s supporters, which only further strengthens the right’s opponents. In order to counter the “infiltration” mantra, Rouhani and his allies have been accusing their opponents of extremism, an accusation that has proven popular among the public. In addition, Rouhani has been pushing for media freedoms. In November, the president called for a new press regime with transparent laws and criticized right-wing media outlets for protecting the security establishment and referred to them as “undercover police.”

Here, it is important to note that Rouhani and his allies are not trying to radically alter the regime and transform it into a Western-style democracy. Instead, they are trying to reform Iran by balancing the ideals of Shia Islamism and the need to modernize state and society. From their point of view, engagement with the West would enrich rather than subvert Iran. The pragmatic conservatives and their reformist allies are thus not just comfortable with change but actually welcome it.


We are in the early stages of a significant evolution in the nature of the Iranian regime and the outcome is uncertain. However, given Iran’s domestic and international constraints, the current political system is untenable. Reversing the nuclear deal is not an option because Iran needs the sanctions lifted. Increasing engagement with the international community is bound to bring about changes in the behavior of the state.

To what extent such a shift can take place depends on the internal struggle between those who wish to hold on to a radical interpretation of the 1979 revolution and those who seek a reinterpretation. While those seeking reform in the long run are in a much better position, those resisting reform retain enough support to slow down the pace of change. Both sides realize the risks of a zero-sum game. Those favoring greater democratization know that they cannot marginalize the theocrats. Nor do they wish to because their political ideology is based on Shia Islamism in which the clergy is indispensable. The question is the degree to which the clerics should have a say in governance.

Conversely, the clerics do not seek a pure theocracy and are thus committed to the democratic process – of course with limitations. For them the issue is how to retain clerical oversight over the polity. Their allies in the military and security sector, especially the IRGC, also derive their legitimacy from the clerics and the hybrid political system. Undoing this form of civilian supremacy over the military would destroy the state, especially since the regular armed forces, known as the Artesh, far outnumber the IRGC.


The fragmentation and chaos in the Arab world is a further reminder to the factions within the Iranian elite of what they risk should they refuse to negotiate with each other and find a way out of this historic impasse. This is all the more critical, given the rise of the Islamic State and the resurgence of Iran’s rival, Turkey. Furthermore, the chaos in the Arab world is also a key opportunity to try and enhance the frontiers of Iran’s influence.

Therefore, the tug of war between the two sides will continue for a long time and could intensify, but it is unlikely to cause a rupture in the system. The stakeholders of the Iranian regime will arrive at a political compromise. Over time, this process of domestic change will result in the Iranian regime becoming less bellicose. However, Iran will continue to pursue its own domestic interests, which will inevitably conflict with American and Western interests, as well as those of regional powers like Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia.