Three months after the first round of national elections in Iran, a behind-the-scenes battle over the parliament speaker's post is pitting several conservatives against an ambitious former mayor of Tehran.
The new 290-seat parliament, or Majlis, is dominated by hard-liners whose victories in February were all but assured through the disqualification of 9,000 candidates -- including scores of reformists and moderates -- by a watchdog loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Most of the deputies will be inaugurated on May 28, before the next speaker is chosen through a direct vote in parliament.
Yet with weeks to go, media report that a growing number of conservatives are already fighting for the leadership post that has been held for the past 12 years by the relatively pragmatic Ali Larijani, who recently recovered from COVID-19.
An ally of President Hassan Rohani, Larijani is in his second and final term and did not run in the February 21 parliamentary elections amid speculation that he has presidential ambitions.
Former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a onetime commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)'s Aerospace Force and national police chief who's lost three bids for the presidency, is seen as a top contender to succeed Larijani.
The canny Qalibaf, 59, who has in the past positioned himself as a moderate, has faced accusations of corruption during his mayoral tenure. Some hard-liners have cited such allegations while vowing to prevent him from grabbing parliament's most important seat.
Qalibaf has reportedly traveled to Khuzestan in the southwest and other provinces to lobby for support while facing an increasing number of hard-line rivals, including several who served under former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (2005-13).
Rivals On All Sides
Media speculation has mounted this week about Qalibaf's chances of success.
The semiofficial ILNA news agency reported on May 4 that the tide could be turning against the ex-mayor due to support for lawmaker and former Education Minister Hamidreza Hajibabaei. But the Fararu news site suggested on May 5 that Qalibaf could be inching closer to his goal, following the apparent decision by Alireza Zakani to sit out the race. Zakani is seen as an influential potential rival who, unlike Qalibaf, faces no opposition from his fellow hard-liners.
Qalibaf on May 4 retweeted Zakani's announcement on Twitter while saying that the next parliament will be "a Majlis of work and brothership in resolving people's problems."
Iranian political analyst Ali Afshari says he thinks Qalibaf still has the best chance of winning, due to what he described as support from the office of Ayatollah Khamenei, who is said to have been pushing for a compliant parliament.
"It is likely that the same intervention that put Qalibaf on the top of the list in Tehran, creating an imposed unity [among conservatives], makes him the speaker," Afshari, a former student leader based in Washington, tells RFE/RL.
Apart from Hajibabaei, who is seen by some as Qalibaf's most significant rival, other reported contenders include Mostafa Mirsalim, a hard-line former culture minister who ran in the 2016 vote won by Larijani, who faces a hostile parliament through the conclusion of his term in 2021.
Cleric Morteza Aghatehrani, the secretary-general of the ultraconservative Endurance Front and a former imam of an Islamic institute in New York, has also been cited as a likely challenger to Qalibaf. But analysts including Afshari have argued that Aghatehrani, who served as a spiritual adviser to Ahmadinejad, has little chance of success if he vies for the post.
Others, including Fereydun Abbasi Davani, a former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency who survived a 2010 assassination attempt on the streets of Tehran, and Seyed Shamsedin Hosseini, who served as economy minister under Ahmadinejad, have publicly expressed their intention to compete for the post of Majlis leader.
Ali Nikzad, a former Ahmadinejad cabinet member who campaigned for Rohani rival, hard-line cleric, and current judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi in the 2017 presidential election, has also been named as a possible Qalibaf rival.
The reformist Sharq daily suggested recently that such competition for the speaker's post within the establishment faction is virtually unprecedented, as the race for parliament speaker has usually played out among two or three contenders.
"The fight for the post among hard-liners is so competitive that everyone sees themselves more qualified to sit in [the speaker's] seat," Sharq said in report published last month.
For his part, the editor in chief of the conservative Jomhuri Eslami daily, Hojatoleslam Masih Mohajeri, complained last week about "worrying reports" on the Majlis battle.
"About 10 individuals long for the parliament’s speakership. Instead of praying in the nights of [the holy Muslim month of] Ramadan, some of them hold post-sharing meetings," Mohajeri wrote before warning that "the plague of political infighting," "division," "corruption," and a "disregard for people’s suffering" threaten the country's officials.
Saeid Golkar, assistant political science professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and senior fellow on Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, argues that the battle signaling rifts among establishment conservatives means little to Iranians who have grown increasingly disenchanted at the worsening economy under intense pressure from crippling U.S. sanctions, mismanagement and corruption, and state repression.
There has also been sharp criticism of the Iranian leadership's initially slow response to the coronavirus pandemic that has killed nearly 6,500 and infected over 100,000 Iranians, according to official figures. The actual COVID-19 infection figures are believed to be significantly higher.
The historically low turnout for the February vote -- the worst since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and following a brutal November crackdown on anti-establishment protests and outrage over the clumsy handling of the IRGC's downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet -- appeared to highlight the popular frustration and discontent.
"While the competition is essential for hard-liners -- especially since the presidential election is just a few months away and the succession of the supreme leader [might loom] -- it is not important for ordinary Iranians," Golkar says.