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Rivalry Among Iran's Conservatives Leaves Khamenei Relative Out In The Cold

Iran's former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) and Tehran's former mayor Baqer Qalibaf January 19, 2019.

Less than two weeks before the inauguration of the new Iranian Parliament (Majles) on May 28, competition for the speakership has heated up among various conservative factions. Is the Supreme Leader backing any faction, or does it make any difference to him?

Three of the main conservative factions have formed an alliance against another conservative faction to win the speakership of the Majles.

Iranian media reports say the traditional conservatives, the hardliner Paydari Front and the ultraconservative pro-Ahmadinejad factions announced their alliance Wednesday night May 13 after holding several meetings in what they later called the Committee of Seven.

The new alliance has still not said who is its final candidate for the posts of the Speaker of Majles and around 16 other posts at the Majles Presidium, but it is obvious that three factions will share the positions among their members.

Previously, Mostafa Mirsalim of the Islamic Coalition Party was nominated as the candidate for traditional conservatives, Morteza Aqa-Tehrani was nominated by Paydari and Hamid Reza Hajibabaei as the pro-Ahmadinejad camp's candidate for the top seat at the Majles.

The faction left out is the neoconservative group led by former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf (Ghalibaf) whose members have sarcastically called the rival alliance as the "Anyone but Qalibaf Faction."

Qalibaf is a relative of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei but it seems the country's ruler is letting chips fall where they may.

From another perspective, the competition over the top seat at the Majles is a race between two different parts of the Revolutionary Guard oligarchy. Former IRGC air force commander General Qalibaf is running against men lined up by former IRGC General Sadeq Mahsuli who has chosen to play the part of a kingmaker rather than a soldier on the ground. He was an interior minister in Ahmadinejad's first presidential term.

Mahsuli is known to be a billionaire and Qalibaf's municipality has been implicated in financial corruption cases involving billions of dollars. The competition that has been going on since February is likely to be about financial gains rather than political power as the Majles is not an independent player. Its most important decisions and legislations have been handed over to the heads of the three branches of the government (annual budget, the rise in gas price), Expediency Council (the FATF bills) and the Guardian Council which can always overturn any decision the Majles makes.

Two leading pro-Qalibaf members of the new Majles, Elias Naderan and Mohsen Dehnavi, have lashed out at the Committee of Seven, accusing them of "sowing discord among conservatives," and referring to the role of those who try to influence decisions from outside the Majles, possibly an allusion to Mahsuli, said "The Majles does not need a godfather."

On the other hand, the Committee's members say that Qalibaf was invited to the meeting about the alliance but he did not show up. The reason could be the resolution by the Committee barring anyone with an intention to take part in the Presidential election in 2021 from running for the post of Majles Speaker.

The resolution may have been particularly tailored to prevent Qalibaf's ambition to become Iran's next President.

According to reformist newspaper Etemad, before the new alliance was formed Qalibaf, who has some 50 supporters in the new Majles, managed to garner the support of another 50 new MPs to have an edge over Paydari's 80 supporters. The new alliance has changed the situation in support of the anti-Qalibaf camp as around 20 to 30 traditional conservatives and around 70 pro-Ahmadinjad MPs put the alliance in the top position. So, if nothing changes during the next 13 days, Mirsalim or someone else nominated by the alliance will take the top seat at the Majles.

Mahmoud Abbaszadeh Meshkini, a pro-Ahmadinejad MP, told Ebtekar newspaper in Tehran that this is an influential majority as the four conservative blocs have a total number of 200 to 230 MPs. The three blocs in the alliance have 170 to 180 MPs.

Some political observers in Tehran have already referred to Qalibaf's lack of political experience, although it is not clear whether he could have influenced the Committee's decision had he taken part in their meetings.

Although it does not look like that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is interested in intervening in the matter, some analysts believe that Qalibaf shunned the invitation by the Committee out of complacence because of his kinship link to Khamenei's household.

However, as far as Khamenei is concerned, perhaps someone like Mirsalim who has proved his loyalty to the Islamic Republic and its traditional "values" during the past four decades as a member of the "old guard" would be a better choice to lead the Majles while some of Qalibaf's "modern" tendencies may not necessarily be consistent with traditional yardsticks.

On the other hand, a seasoned politician like Mirsalim would need less steering by Khamenei to lead the Majles in the difficult situation marked by a worsening economic crisis and a failing foreign policy.