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May 29, 2020

New Parliament Convenes


Week of May 25th, 2020 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council

New Parliament Convenes

The eleventh Iranian parliament since the 1979 revolution was sworn in. Of the 290 members in the body, 279 were elected in the first round of elections in February. The remaining 11 seats are still contested and will go to a second round. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the second-round election has been postponed to September.

The February parliamentary election had the lowest official turnout rate of any parliamentary election under the Islamic Republic. The official turnout was 42.57 percent. Contributing to the low turnout were mass disqualifications of moderate and reformist candidates by the Guardian Council, including the disqualification of roughly 100 incumbent MPs from the previous parliament.

Hassan Rouhani participated in the inauguration ceremony and welcomed the new parliament. He called for cooperation between his administration and the conservative-dominated parliament and called on MPs to separate the needs of the country from their partisan interests.

The new parliament is controlled by conservatives and has mostly new members. The overwhelming majority of the previous parliament, 248 members, either failed to win reelection, did not seek reelection, or were disqualified from running. Just 56 members from the previous parliament have kept their seats in this new parliament.

The new parliament has just 20 reformist and 37 independent MPs. The rest are conservatives, though they are divided into different factions.

The hardline Jebhe Paydari (“Front for the Perseverance of the Islamic Revolution”) is one of three conservative factions in parliament. Reportedly dozens of MPs are affiliated with them. Many are former officials in the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration.

The head of this faction in parliament is Morteza Aghatehrani, a disciple of hardline cleric Mesbah Yazdi and studied in the United States. Aghatehrani received his master’s degree at Mcgill University in Canada and his Phd from State University of New York at Binghamton.

The second Jebhe Paydari figure in parliament is Sadegh Mahsouli, a wealthy investor and former interior minister during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. He is a military veteran and is sometimes referred to as the “godfather” of the hardline Jebhe Paydari political movement in Iran.

The other conservative faction in parliament is led by former Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. A former mayor of Tehran and IRGC commander, Ghalibaf was voted to be the new parliamentary speaker (which is detailed below). Ghalibaf has a reputation for being more pragmatic and less ideological than many other conservatives.

The third conservative faction in the parliament is referred to as the “traditional conservatives.” Their senior figure is former minister of culture Mostafa Mir Salim, who served in the Hashemi Rafsanjani presidency. This group has historically supported less government intervention in the economy but is socially conservative.

One notable feature of the new parliament is the rise of former Ahmadinejad officials. Over 50 of the newly elected MPs served in the Ahmadinejad administration. These include former cabinet ministers, governors and senior managers.

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Former Tehran Mayor Elected Parliamentary Speaker

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former mayor of Tehran and IRGC commander, was elected parliamentary speaker. He received 230 votes, an overwhelming majority, from the newly elected MPs.

Ghalibaf had previously unsuccessfully ran for president three times, in 2005, 2013, and 2017. In the latter two elections, he was a conservative rival of Hassan Rouhani.

In the 2017 presidential election, Ghalibaf and former prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi ran against Rouhani. Shortly before the election, Ghalibaf dropped out in favor of Raisi, who lost with 16 million votes to Rouhani’s 24 million.

Now, with one year left in Rouhani’s presidency, his erstwhile rivals head the two other branches of government. Ghalibaf has replaced Ali Larijani, a Rouhani ally, as parliamentary speaker. Meanwhile, Raisi was appointed judiciary chief by Ayatollah Khamenei in March 2019.

Ghalibaf has a long record of senior posts in the Islamic Republic, including as one of the youngest wartime commanders. In 1980, at 19 years old, he joined the military and fought throughout the entirety of the Iran-Iraq war. At 21 years old, he assumed command of a nascent IRGC battalion. For the last five years of the war, he was the commander of a major IRGC division.

After the war, Ghalibaf headed the IRGC’s construction arm (Khatam ol-Anbia), which oversaw major post-war reconstruction efforts. Afterwards, from 1996–1999, he was commander of the IRGC’s air force.

During the 1990s, Ghalibaf also received a Phd from Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University in addition to training to become a pilot. He studied for a time in France, learning how to fly Airbus planes, and flew Iran Air passenger aircraft for a time.

In 1999, Ghalibaf became head of Iran’s police force. During his tenure, he overhauled the force, instituting Iran’s equivalent of a 9-11 system and imported a fleet of modern European-made vehicles for the police.

From 2005-2017, Ghalibaf was mayor of Tehran. He gained a reputation as a technocrat and oversaw the completion of major infrastructure projection, including Tehran’s metro system, the construction of highways, tunnels, bridges, and parks.

However, Ghalibaf also had several corruption scandals as mayor. One of the most controversial was the selling of property at cheap prices to members of the city council. The journalist who exposed this, Yashar Soltani, was arrested for a time. Ghalibaf at first denied it and then said he had no knowledge of the dealings.

After reformists took over the city council in 2016, many more allegations surfaced against Ghalibaf. One was that his deputy Isa Sharifi had spied for hostile foreign powers.

Another controversy erupted in recent years after a video surfaced of Ghalibaf talking to members of the Basij force. Ghalibaf was discussing the 1999 student protests and said that at the time, he himself took a baton to go “clean the streets.”

He said in the video that to ensure “public comfort and security, someone has to go to the streets with a stick, even if they are a military commander.” The video spurred major backlash during the 2017 election.

Ghalibaf’s political persona has changed over the years. During the 2005 presidential election, he ran as an “independent” and sought to attract younger voters by emphasizing his background as a pilot and his academic pedigree as opposed to his military background.

However, during the 2017 election, he ran as an economic populist and a more ideological conservative. He portrayed himself as a “jihadi manager.”

On foreign policy, in recent years Ghalibaf expressed support for the JCPOA and negotiations with the West. Hassan Ghofourifard, a conservative analyst in Iran, recently told an Iranian outlet that on foreign policy, Ghalibaf can be “strong but at the same time take a softer and more moderate approach than other conservatives.”

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Official Dismisses Cancellation of U.S. Sanctions Waivers

Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), has dismissed the Trump administration’s cancellation of sanctions waivers regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. would end sanctions waivers that allow Chinese, Russia, and British firms to reconfigure Iran’s nuclear program to make it less of a nuclear proliferation risk. The work covered by the waivers was a critical aspect of the JCPOA.

Kamalvandi said the U.S. ending the waivers was “media noise” and would not “impact” Iran’s nuclear work. He stated: “Announcing that the suspension of the nuclear waivers is a desperate effort to distract public opinion domestically and internationally from the failure of the U.S. approach to Iran.”

Kamalvandi said Iran was not concerned about completing its Arak heavy water reactor. He stated: “We are at ease about completing Arak’s renovation. This is because we can by ourselves build the reactor based on both the old design or the new design.”

Kamalvandi added about Arak: “Even now, Iranian experts are competing designs for the reactor and its fuel. China and some European countries have helped, but the main work for the design of the reactor and its fuel is carried out by us.”

However, Kamalvandi also said that the redesign of the Arak reactor was going slowly because of U.S. sanctions: “Because of the issues created regarding the JCPOA’s implementation and the sanctions, it is going slowly. If the Europeans were more helpful, the speed of work would be much faster.”

Kamalvandi also said about the Russian supply of fuel for Iran’s nuclear power reactor in Bushehr: “Whenever we need and without any problem our fuel has come from Russia. If the current fuel runs out, we will be able in the future to produce this fuel without help from any country.”

The AEOI has also condemned new U.S. sanctions against two of its officials and said that “good news” is coming “about Iran’s nuclear industry.” It did not give further details.

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