Iran’s hardliners trade blows over election loss

Repudiation of candidates came after their mishandling of the economy and power struggles among them

Radical conservative candidate Saeed Jalili at an election campaign rally in Tehran on July 3rd. Photograph: Arash Khamooshi/New York Times

Iran’s hardliners are trading recriminations over their loss in last week’s presidential election after millions of their supporters shifted their votes to the reformist president-elect.

Acrimony has increased between backers of the two hardline contenders, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the speaker of parliament, and the more radical Saeed Jalili, both of whom declined to quit the race to unite behind a single hardline candidate, as in previous Iranian votes.

The hardline grouping is made up of social conservatives opposed to a rapprochement with the US. Ghalibaf had been viewed as the regime’s preferred choice to win the tightly controlled poll, but a surprise decision to allow reformist Masoud Pezeshkian to run culminated in his victory.

Ghalibaf’s allies this week accused Jalili of exaggerating his popularity and his claim to have comprehensive plans for government.


Mohammad Mohajeri, a conservative journalist, wrote on X: “Just as he had the delusion of becoming president, Jalili also has the delusion that he has a plan to run the country within his [so-called] shadow government.”

Jalili’s supporters have in turn hit out at Ghalibaf. Hamid Rasaee, an MP who backed Jalili, said: “The best response to Ghalibaf is his fourth place in the parliamentary election [for the Tehran constituency in March], in a city where he served as mayor for 12 years.”

Newly-elected Iranian president Masoud Pezeshkian (right) during a visit to the shrine of the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on July 6th. Photograph: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

The hardliners will struggle to reunite under one umbrella as they lack strong political leaders, with senior individuals tending to act on their own perceived religious duties. The power struggle is expected to persist, especially in parliament.

Supporters of Jalili have revived accusations that some associates of Ghalibaf were corrupt. They have also criticised those perceived to be living a luxurious lifestyle far detached from the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Vahid Ashtari, an individual close to hardliners, was arrested during the campaign after posting an image of a plane ticket purporting to show that Ghalibaf’s daughter brought almost 300kg of luggage back from a shopping trip in Turkey – a claim she and the family have denied.

Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a hardline politician, told the Financial Times: “This election was a jolt for them [hardliners] who are now blaming each other. They are all guilty.”

He said the hardliners had “lost due to their own mistakes”, including policy failures such as their inability to rein in inflation of about 40 per cent, as well as strategic problems such as opting not to promote younger candidates or find fresh campaign lines.

Despite their strong backing from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his primary arm of power, the Revolutionary Guards, analysts say hardliners’ mishandling of the economy during the presidency of conservative Ebrahim Raisi – who died in a helicopter crash in May – fuelled public discontent and prompted the regime to change course. Power struggles in the hardline camp were another factor.

Since 2020, hardliners had grown accustomed to largely competing only with each other in national votes, as the authorities blocked senior reformists. But when Pezeshkian was permitted to run, Iranian analysts and politicians saw that as a tacit endorsement from Khamenei.

Taraghi said: “The supreme leader chose a tactic which is also strategic to steer the country through the current problems and make the system more efficient and flexible.”

At a time when powerful hardliners dominated all branches of the state, the victory of 69-year-old Pezeshkian in Friday’s run-off delivered a significant setback to their camp, which had believed it could garner a similar level of votes to the 18 million that brought Raisi to power in 2021.

Jalili, however, won just 13.5 million votes in the run-off and Ghalibaf 3.4 million. Iranian analysts believe many conservatives who previously supported Raisi this time voted for Pezeshkian, who secured 16.3 million votes, as hardliners lost favour even with their traditional base.

Low turnouts have traditionally favoured hardliners, but Pezeshkian bucked that trend when he won in a run-off with turnout of 49.8 per cent, one of the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s history.

Pezeshkian, a regime loyalist who spoke of his faith and obedience to Khamenei in the campaign, wants to marginalise radical forces from both hardline and reformist camps while creating a sense of unity in the centre. In televised debates he said he had recruited conservatives, including people linked with Ghalibaf and the late Raisi, to work on his campaign.

But there are concerns in pro-reform circles that hardliners will seek to undermine any reformist agenda.

Hardliners control parliament and the judiciary and also dominate the Revolutionary Guards and the office of the supreme leader, which determines crucial domestic and foreign policies.

The imprisonment on Saturday on existing charges of Mohsen Borhani, a lawyer and rights activist, was seen by reformists as a warning from hardliners in the judiciary that they would have limited options for changing the country’s direction.

Pezeshkian has vowed to secure relief from US sanctions by resolving the nuclear stand-off with the West. He has also promised to ease restrictions on social media and end patrols by the morality police, who enforce hijab rules for women.

Hardliners argue Pezeshkian cannot change big-picture policies shaped by the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards, including enmity to the US and Israel and backing regional militias.

“No matter who is the president, the policy toward the US cannot change as long as there is this level of hostility from the US against Iran,” said Foad Izadi, an associate professor for American studies at Tehran university, who is close to the hardliners.

There are also concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and military co-operation with Russia. Pezeshkian has pledged to follow Khamenei’s guidelines in these areas, in a bid to minimise hardliners’ attacks on his government.

Reformists cautioned that if the pressure from hardliners on Pezeshkian narrows the potential for change, social unrest could result.

Mohammad Fazeli, a sociologist, said people voted reluctantly and without much hope. Now, he added, “if they see the ruling system repeating its past tactics [of sabotaging reform], I believe the possibility of peaceful political engagement in Iran will end”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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