Understanding the Political Factionalism in Iran and its Role in Foreign Policy Making

Since 1979, Iran has been under the theocratic-republic having the two parallel systems simultaneously i.e. Islamic segment and the republic segment. The unique division of the system is reflected through the existence of two parallel parliaments in Iran. The first one is the Iranian Legislative Assembly which passes resolution and legislature like any other parliament of any other country. The second institution which acts as an alternative parliament is the Assembly of Experts – the body of 88 jurists – which elects the Leader, overseas his performance and, in theory, can dismiss him. Iran has also maintained the balance in its elite council, called The Guardian Council, which ratifies the laws passed by the government and shape them as per the Islamic principles. The Guardian Council is represent by six Islamic jurists (representing the Islamic segment) which are directly appointed by the Leader and judges, nominated by the Iranian parliament (representing the republic segment). Hence, Iran has formulated the system which was originally supposed to maintain balance among the various political divisions inside the country.

Since 1979 till 1989, Iran virtually remained the one party state. Islamic Republic Party (IRP) was the sole political group in Iran which contested the elections at different level. Despite having the divisions within the party over various issues, the existence of a separate faction (or party) remained an illusion for two reasons. Firstly, the presence of Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, was the crucial factor in maintain the unity of the new republic. His overarching figure deterred the political elites to get divided into separate blocs. Secondly, during the first decade in post-revolution Iran, Iran had been fighting the eight-year war with Iraq. Since the Western powers, especially the US, were providing support to Iraq, the national cohesion in Iran was necessary. The internal political tussle could have led to the internal instability in Iran, resulting in the dire consequences for its existence.

The Emergence of Political Factionalism in Post-Khomeini Iran

Once the war with Iraq ended, the debate on post-war foreign, political and economic policy of Iran led to the internal party divisions within the IRP. The entanglement between the various blocs of IRP became so intensified that Khomeini had to dissolve the party in 1988. Furthermore, in the following year, the death of Khomeini proved to be the last nail in the coffin for different political factions to stay united. Resultantly, two successor political parties emerged from the IRP. The first one was represented by Islamic Right (conservatives) which was composed of senior clergy and advocated for capitalist economy and internal restructuring of Iran. The Conservatives united under the single political party called Combatant Clergy Association (CCA). The second bloc belonged to the Islamic Left faction, also called as Radicals. They promoted the vision of exporting the revolution beyond the Iranian territorial boundaries and supported the idea of social justice. They were mostly the members of middle-rank or junior clergy who founded the political party called Association of Combatant Clerics (ACC).

Nevertheless, the post-Khomeini period was marked by the triumph of Conservatives while the Radicals vanished from the political spectrum. The decline of Radicals or the Islamic Left proved inevitable for two basic reasons. Firstly, after the death of Khomeini, Ayatollah Sayyad Ali Khamenei became the next Iranian Leader while the presidential elections of 1989 witnessed the victory of Ayatollah Hashmi Rafsanjani. Both of these individuals were the students and close associates of Khomeini and belonged to the Conservative Camp. Since the two most powerful positions had been dominated by the conservatives, it gave a significant blow to the politics of Islamic Left in Iran. Secondly, at the international level, the collapse of Soviet Union marked the beginning of the end of leftist appeal globally. Eventually, Iranian Radicals became politically weak and started focusing on the revitalization of their ideology.

Divisions within the Conservative Camp

Once the Conservatives managed to dominate the political arena, their internal disfranchisement became evident. The issue arose over the passive rivalry between the Leader and the President. Being of equal stature and among the pioneers of Iranian revolution, both Khamenei and Rafsanjani paced up their efforts to expand their influence over the politics of Iran. The associates of Khamenei vehemently supported the uncontested leadership of the Leader while the Rafsanjani administration tried to grant the president more power. Since the Leader represented the Islamic-theocratic faction and the President is the manifestation of democratic-republican faction (elected through the direct elections), their mutual rivalry gave rise to further divisional groups categorized into Traditional Conservatives (TCs) and Moderate Conservatives (or simply Moderates). Both the political blocs interpreted Khomeini’s ideology in their respective perspective. The TCs believed in the strict implementation of the doctrine of Vilayat e Faqih and opposed the interaction with the Western states. On the other hand, Moderates tried to balance the power of the Leader and the President so to prevent the domination of one over the other. They also advocated for the better ties and interaction with the Western states to secure Iranian interests.

1997 Presidential Elections and Moderate-Reformist Nexus

Although the Iranian constitution guarantees the Leader’s superiority over every other institution yet Khamenei lacked the charisma of Khomeini which provided space to Rafsanjani (the president) of political maneuvering. Hence, the political power of the Moderates gradually increased which alienated them from the TCs. Radicals, who were sidelined in post-Khomeini era, now rebranded themselves as the Reformists and formed an informal alliance with the Moderates. Having experienced the power of the Conservatives and the Iranian system of Vilyat e Faqih against their interests, the Reformists advocated for the greater authority of the republican segment into the Iranian politics in order to “reform” the country while the Islamic segment under the Leader should only provide guidelines. They also voiced their support for the openness towards the West to lift Iran out of the Western-imposed sanctions. Hence, with this manifesto, the Reformists contested the 1997 Presidential Elections of Iran with the backing of the Moderates and came out victorious through the election of Muhammad Khatami as president. With the success of Moderate-Reformist bloc, Iran showed the flexible attitude towards the Western states and even collaborated with the US against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Khatami also propagated his ideology of “Dialogue Among Civilizations” to create an inclusive international environment. Furthermore, under Khatami administration, Iran also negotiated its nuclear program in an unsuccessful Paris Accord Agreement from 2003 till 2005, demonstrating the compromising foreign policy outlook.

Hardliners in Iran and the Completion of Factional Tetrad

The increasing rapprochement by the Reformists towards the West and the compromising attitude towards the nuclear program witnessed the reactionary phenomenon from the circles of regime supporters and the military establishment i.e. IRGC. A new political faction emerged labelled as the Hardliners who associated the divine attributes towards the authority of the Leader. The Hardliners gained their ideological aspirations from the clerics like Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. The cleric was also the ideological mentor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardline politician who swept the Iranian presidential elections of 2005 and again in 2009. The hardliners mustered up the support from the religious circles, however, the majority of their influence was from the military circles and especially from the IRGC. In a complete contrast manner to Reformists, Hardliners under Ahmadinejad were hostile towards the West. With their inception, the tetrad in Iranian political factions was completed which exists till date.

Foreign Policy of Every Faction

  • Conservatives: They are the members of the religious establishment of Iran and the practitioners of the doctrine of Vilayat e Faqih. They are the senior clergy members and support for the foreign policy of neither interaction nor hostility towards the West. Their foreign policy outlook could be extracted from the statement of Iranian Leader in the wake of downing of the US drone by the Iranian forces in June 2019, which says, “Neither war will occur nor will we negotiate”. They are further divided into two sub-groups, called “moderate conservatives” and “ultra-conservatives”. The former are mainly the intellectual class associated with the religious circles like Ali Larijani and Ali Akber Wilayati. They try to act as a bridge between the Conservatives and Moderates. They could be termed as “Pragmatists”. The latter one is basically the class of mid-rank religious clerics who act as the connectors between the Conservatives and the IRGC like the president-elect, Ibrahim Raeesi and Mohsen Razaee. On the foreign policy front, they share the perspective of the hardliners.
  • Hardliners: They represent the military establishment of Iran and could be categorized as the “guardian of the religious establishment”. Their foreign policy is that of confrontationist against the West and expansionist towards the region which translate into the greater influence of Iran across the region. Ahmadinejad and the current parliamentary speaker, Baqir Ghalibaf are from this faction. On the religious front, they were formerly represented by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and now by Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, the current head of the Guardian Council.
  • Moderates: They are the core republican faction of Iran and maintains workable ties with the Conservatives. They advocate for the neo-liberal policies and strengthened economic ties with the West. According to them, the better and interdependent ties with the West would allow Iran with the international leverage and a good diplomatic standing at the globe. Historically, they were represented by Hashemi Rafsanjani until his death in 2016. Currently, the incumbent president, Hasan Rouhani, belongs to this faction.
  • Reformists: Formally known as Radicals, they maintain that Iran must collaborate with the Western powers over the global issues to get into their good books. While they support interacting with the West, their stance on having full diplomatic relations with the US is unclear. However, on the multilateral forum, they believe that cooperation with the Western powers is possible which could help Iran from shrugging off its diplomatic isolation. Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hussain Mousavi, the leader of the 2009 Green Movement and the former vice-president from 1981 to 1989, are the frontrunners of the reformists’ politics. Ironically, the younger brother of the Iranian Leader, named Hadi Khamenei, is also from this faction.

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About Faraz Naqvi 2 Articles
The author is an MPhil scholar of International Relations based in Islamabad, Pakistan. His areas of interest are the Middle East, South Asia, Foreign Policy, and Terrorism.