A divide among Iran's conservatives casts doubt whether a victory in the May 2021 election is within their reach, despite their overwhelming majority at the Iranian parliament and the fact that many of the institutions that affect the election and its results are also held by conservatives.
Despite their differences and infightings, the conservative camp has historically enjoyed wholehearted support from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Conservatives would be met with little resistance in the vetting process by the conservative-held Guardian Council, and have generally been treated favorably by powerful institutions including the seminaries and the armed forces.
So, why regardless of all the advantages, are Iranian conservatives unsure about the prospects of winning the election?
Iranian conservatives thrived as a relatively same-minded camp until 2005, when ultraconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the election for the first time. The emergence of Iranian neo-cons around Ahmadinejad ignited divides that shattered the image of unified conservatives, challenging their status as Iran’s most important pillar of power.
During the second term of office of Ahmadinejad from 2009 – 2013, new groups emerged within the conservative camp, particularly with the emergence of Paydari Front. Since 2013, conservatives have not been able to unite under any leadership, and the party’s status as a unified group seems ultimately altered.
Conservatives won the latest election in Iran, the Majles election of February 2020, with the reformist and moderate parties edged out partly because of their own weaknesses, and also due to the intervention of the Guardian Council, which refused to endorse the qualifications of most eligible reformist and moderate figures who wanted to run for the Majles.
Mohammad Reza Taraqqi, a leading member of the Islamic Coalition Party, one of the most prominent conservative parties of Iran, spoke to pro-reform news website Fararu in July 2020, claiming, "Without a consensus among them, conservatives do not have any chance for success."
According to Taraqi, the political system would approve of any "young revolutionary presidential candidate," but for voters, "it is important which group is putting forward the candidate's name."
Conservative political activist Hossein Kanani-Moqaddam described the conservative camp as divided into "wings" or "factions,” telling Fararu, "One single faction cannot hold the next government. We need a political coalition of all factions to run the affairs of the state."
"Based on experience, unilateralism has always created problems in domestic politics,” he added.
The current Majles reflects a more-or-less accurate image of the political combination in Iran: a conservative majority with many well-known political figures, plus a very small minority of proreform and independents who inevitably have to join one of conservative groups in the Majles if they want to have a say in political affairs.
And yet, traditional conservatives at the Majles are overshadowed by the tremendous influence of Paydari members who are said to be secretly supporting Ahmadinejad and other conservatives who declare their affiliation to the political line of former President Ahmadinejad more prominently, as well as the new conservative faces who gather around Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.
The latest major vote at the Majles, for the head of the State Auditing Organization on July 22, showed the real weight of the combination of the first two groups that managed to elect Paydari figure Mehrdad Bazrpash. In the same voting, they elected another like-minded conservative, Alireza Zakani, as the head of the Males Research Center.
Statistically speaking, Iran's next president could come from the saner camp. But what worries both conservatives and neo-cons alike about the next presidential election is that the president will be elected by the people, and not by the members of political groups whose behavior is controlled by strongmen and influencers within the parliament.
As conservative analyst Amir Mohebbian claimed in a July 29 interview, "There is no longer an entity as the conservative camp. There are various groups with varying readings of the concept of conservatism. These readings are so different with each other that they cannot be thought of as the ideas of one group or several groups under one umbrella."
"We have conservatives who have common enemies, but at the same time the enmity among themselves is no less than the hostility between conservatives and other groups,” Mohebbian added, a grave foreshadowing of the problems that may await the party in the future.