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Iran: Meet the ultra-conservative election winners taking over parliament

Iran's parliamentary elections at the beginning of March saw success for ultra-conservative candidates. MEE takes a look at some of the big winners
A general view of the Iranian parliament, taken in 2019 (AFP)
By MEE correspondent in Tehran

Iran's recent parliamentary elections have seen prominent ultra-conservatives secure top positions, marking a significant shift in their favour on the benches of the Islamic Republic's Consultative Assembly. 

The 1 March elections, the first held since protests swept the nation following the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022, recorded a turnout of just 41 percent, the lowest figure since the 1979 revolution. 

With reformists mostly boycotting the ballot and voters abstaining in protest, the principlist Omana coalition, backed by President Ebrahim Raisi, and the Endurance Front, allied with former Islamic Republic Guard Corps (IRGC) commander and parliamentary speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, were the notable contenders.

Qalibaf, who had previously held the highest number of votes, was unexpectedly shunted into fourth place, with three ultra-conservatives claiming the top three spots. The success of the Omana coalition also paved the way for other conservatives to secure parliamentary seats.

Here, Middle East Eye looks at some of the election's notable ultra-conservative winners.

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Hamid Rasaei, 55

Formerly associated with the Endurance Front, Rasaei has emerged as a staunch adversary of Qalibaf, repeatedly levelling accusations against him.

When one of Qalibaf's biggest backers, the powerful Hossein Taeb, former chairman of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC's) intelligence organisation, was removed from his role, Rasaei openly praised the move and called it the second most important ousting in the history of the Islamic Republic.

A natural enemy of Iran's reformists, he took this to an unexpected new level when he vehemently criticised slain IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani for praising then-moderate president Hassan Rouhani.

In a pivotal moment following the signing of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) with the United States and others in 2015, Rasaei, a sitting MP at the time, publicly clashed with Asghar Hijazi, right-hand man of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who was present to send a clear message to ultra-conservatives in parliament not to hinder the passage of the deal.

The deal put limitations on Iran's nuclear programme in return for US sanctions relief. Washington exited from it in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump, reimposing sanctions as they did.

Mahmoud Nabavian, 58

A Shia cleric and conservative politician, Nabavian is best known for his radical views on foreign policy, having compared the nuclear deal with the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay that gave away many Persian cities in the Caucasus to Russia. 

A staunch critic of former foreign minister Javad Zarif, who signed the deal in 2015, Nabavian also released a video vehemently opposing attempts by Raisi's foreign policy team to revive the deal and criticising Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri.

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One conservative source told Middle East Eye that Nabavian lobbied against the deal and prevented Bagheri from finalising it in Vienna, where it was being renegotiated in 2022. 

Nabavian has also expressed support for the Taliban's leadership, stating last year after an official visit to Afghanistan: "Some believe that members of the Taliban are terrorists, which is not right."

The politician characterised those demonstrating in the wake of Mahsa Amini's death as "womanisers".

Having studied under Shia scholar Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, the principlist godfather, Nabavian once asserted that those who do not believe in the guardianship of the Islamic jurist (the Islamic Republic's political system, which is based on a jurist having the final say in public matters) are not Muslims and must face execution. 

Said to be among the candidates for the speakership of parliament, Nabavian has previously advocated the acquisition by Iran of an atomic bomb, saying that it was needed to silence Israel.

Amir Hossein Sabeti, 36 

A rising young star in the super-revolutionary firmament, Sabeti gained prominence by interviewing various officials staunchly opposed to the JCPOA on television.

A presenter at the state-controlled IRIB Ofogh channel, which is managed by ultra-conservatives, for several years Sabeti hosted shows targeting reformist figures like Zarif.

The young presenter didn't shy away from attacking his critics, including Iranian football legend Ali Daei, for supporting the Mahsa Amini protests. His firm stance against dissenting voices became particularly evident during this period.

When Covid-19 entered Iran, Sabeti denied its severity, dismissing claims that the virus could cause significant harm and stating that the notion that it would cause hundreds of deaths was a fabrication.

By February 2022, Iran had reported approximately 140,000 deaths from the virus.

Qassem Ravanbakhsh, 65  

A prominent cleric and senior editor at Partow-e Sokhan, a weekly magazine affiliated with Taqi Mesbah Yazdi's institution, Ravanbakhsh wields influence in both religious and media spheres.

Prior to the elections, he urged the Guardian Council, responsible for candidate vetting, to reject candidates who oppose two bills: one restricting internet freedom and the other known as the hijab bill, which parliament approved in September and which defines an array of punishments for violators of a mandatory dress code, including fines and prison terms.

Since the elections, Ravanbakhsh has emphasised the parliament's focus on passing the bill for the "purification of the internet" and the establishment of a "national internet", alongside the hijab bill.

A top student of Mesbah Yazdi, Ravanbakhsh aligns strongly with the influential cleric's ideology, particularly in his steadfast opposition to reformists.

His victory underscores the commitment of this faction to shaping legislative priorities in line with their conservative values.

Ravanbakhsh hailed fellow anti-JCPOA campaigner Nabavian's victory in Tehran, where he won the highest number of votes, as a sign that the "West-orientated diplomatic approach of the past was fundamentally flawed".

A trenchant critic of the press, Ravanbakhsh said this year: "The media we have, much of which is aligned with the reformist movement, proclaims slogans of reform but, unfortunately, institutionalises corruption from the other side. They advocate for the rule of law but, regrettably, institutionalise chaos."

Morteza Aqa Tehrani, 67 

A pivotal cleric with significant influence, Aqa Tehrani plays a crucial role in championing the hijab bill and the internet freedoms bill. 

As a senior member of the Endurance Front and another student of Mesbah Yazdi, Aqa Tehrani embodies a strong conservative stance. His contributions extend beyond legislative matters, reflecting a broader commitment to ideological principles.

Like the others on this list, he staunchly opposes the JCPOA, asserting that the agreement weakened Iran in its dealings with the United States. 

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This confluence of prominent ultra-conservatives signals a notable shift in Iranian parliamentary dynamics, reflecting a diverse array of perspectives and conflicts within the political landscape.

The strong influence of Mesbah Yazdi in religious and domestic policy is clear, as is the guidance of former chief negotiator Saeed Jalili on foreign policy.

"The results of the elections reveal a tightening political atmosphere in the country, suggesting that even traditional-moderate conservatives and supporters of Qalibaf no longer have a place in the political landscape," one reformist analyst told MEE.

"I guess the ultra-conservatives are taking over the country step-by-step... We may witness an age of radicals, and this is highly dangerous for the country and even the hardline government of Raisi, as they are opposed to any form of talks with the US."

The analyst noted that while a part of the Raisi government is joined to this ultra-conservative wave, his foreign policy team "has no good ties with them".

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