Spotlight on Political Currents: The Conservatives

The conservatives are among the Islamic Republic of Iran’s most important political currents. With deep roots in the revolution and founding of the system, they are arguably the single most powerful political current in Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed from the conservatives before his ascension, influencing the overall outlook of the system, and between 2003 and 2013 this current reached the height of its political power in Iran. However, a number of factors, including the controversial presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, led to divisions among conservatives from 2009 to 2013 resulting in their defeat in the last Iranian presidential election. The 26 February 2016 Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliamentary) and Assembly of Experts elections will be the best indication yet of whether conservatives can reorganise and consolidate around a politically attractive platform that will allow them to retake power.


The Iranian conservative current today originated from the conservative rightist Islamist current that supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s leadership of the Islamic Revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Two main rightist current groups and their key figures during Iran’s decade of revolution and war from 1979 to 1989 are seen as laying the foundation for conservatism in the 1990s. The first was the Islamic Republican Party’s (IRP) rightist faction, which included the Islamic Coalition Party headed by Habibollah Asgar-Oladi and vocal anti-leftists like Hassan Ayat and Abdol-Hamid Dialameh. The second was the Combatant Clergy Association, the preeminent clerical organisation opposing the Pahlavi Monarchy during Ayatollah Khomeini’s exile and supporting the revolution and founding of the regime. This politically and socially conservative, economically laissez-faire, and moderate foreign policy current held the presidency, but found itself at odds with the radical leftist Islamist current which dominated much of political life in Iran during the 1980s with the nearly unwavering backing of Ayatollah Khomeini. With the passing of Ayatollah Khomeini and ascension of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the supreme leadership, however, conservative politics has come to frame much of Iranian politics in the last quarter century.

The Islamic Republic’s Guardianship of the Jurist (“Velayat-e Faghigh”) system was originally designed to be headed by a senior Islamic jurist. The constitution had to be changed to allow Ayatollah Khamenei, who was an experienced politician but not a marja-e taghlid (object of emulation for Shi’a Muslims) at that time, to become supreme leader. Once in power, it would take the new supreme leader some time to exert his full power over the system and for the second Islamic Republic to be born. In the meantime, centrist President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and reformist President Mohammad Khatami would exert influence of their own over the elected centres of power, namely the presidency and parliament. Particularly from the rise of the reformist current from 1997 onward, the three aforementioned currents in Iranian politics found themselves in a struggle. But Ayatollah Khamenei and the unelected power centres he controlled, such as the Council of Guardians, judiciary, and security forces, established the parameters of the state, setting the bounds of acceptable social and political activity according to conservative views and interests. By the early-to-mid 2000s, conditions became ripe for conservatives to take Iran’s elected power centres and more fully consolidate their hold over the state.

The Conservative Consolidation of Power

Several factors enabled the nearly decade long conservative ascendency from 2003 to 2013, including: marginalisation of the centrists and reformists by the supreme leader and unelected power centres; Iranian’s dissatisfaction with centrists’ perceived corruption and reformists’ ineffectiveness, resulting in voter apathy and low turnout in elections; and the rise of a rejuvenated conservative current with an anti-establishment populist message. These factors allowed conservatives, calling themselves principalists for their professed adherence to the principles of the revolution, to win the 2003 city and village council, 2004 parliamentary, and 2005 presidential elections. This revitalised current was composed of a number of elements, the most important being the conservative clergy, traditional mercantile elite, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the public face of a new conservatism that is politically authoritarian, socially conservative, economically populist, and hawkish in foreign policy.

Over time, however, cracks have appeared among the conservatives. They can, broadly speaking, be divided into hardline and traditional conservative sub-currents. Hardline conservatives have strong ties with the IRGC, preferring populist economics and a hawkish foreign policy. Prominent hardline conservatives include Ahmadinejad during his first term from 2005 to 2009, former speaker of parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, and senior ultra-conservative clergyman Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi. Traditional conservatives are deeply rooted in the conservative clergy and mercantile elite, favouring more laissez-faire economics and a less hawkish foreign policy than hardline conservatives, thus closely resemble the pre-1989 conservative rightists. Prominent traditional conservatives include speaker of parliament Ali Larijani, former speaker of parliament Ali-Akbar Nategh-Nouri, and Assembly of Experts chairman Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi. Ayatollah Khamenei, Guardian Council Chairman Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, and Chief Justice Ayatollah Sadegh-Ardeshir Amoli-Larijani, arguably straddle this boundary while leaning toward hardline conservatives. Though Ahmadinejad presented himself as a hardline conservative during his first term, he and his chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei’s circle took a “deviant” path in his second term from 2009 to 2013 that resulted in their gradually marginalisation by the supreme leader and other conservatives.

The Fracturing of the Conservatives and the 2013 Election

The Ahmadinejad administration’s divisive economic and foreign policies and deviance from conservatism resulted in the fracturing of this current, despite their supremacy within the system. Although the boycott by and disqualification of reformists allowed conservatives to win the 2012 parliamentary elections, they were not able to unite around a single candidate for the 2013 presidential election. Conservative vote splitting allowed Rouhani to gain a slim majority and win that election in the first round. This conservative division has continued under the Rouhani administration, with many traditional conservatives drifting toward Rouhani and the centrists. Many traditional conservatives like Ali Larijani and his Followers of the Leadership Principalist Faction have refused to join the hardline conservative Principalist Alliance Central Council (PACC) election coalition. With traditional conservatives gradually cutting ties with hardline conservatives and drawing closer to centrists, Iranian conservatism is likely to become dominated by hardliners.