When Iran’s hardliners took control of the country’s Parliament late last month, they selected a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf as its new speaker. An outspoken critic of Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani, Qalibaf symbolizes rising internal disagreements between the hardliners and moderates in the midst of deepening economic woes and hardships.
President Rouhani is eager to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after the United States withdrew from the deal and imposed unilateral sanctions on Tehran in 2018. As Rouhani approaches the end of his second term, with just one year left, he intends to implement a maximum engagement policy to avert tensions with Parliament. Qalibaf after taking his position welcomed engagement with Rouhani, however, the hardliners supporting him have criticized the president on numerous occasions.
Iran’s hardliners have blamed Rouhani for the country’s economic hardships in recent years that have led to frequent protests against the Iranian government. Further protests could erupt across Iran over the summer due to the fallout from COVID-19. However, Rouhani’s moderate camp insists that government policies such as a rise in state cash contributions to the Iranian people will avert unrest.
Qalibaf is promising to fix the economy. He has called on the government to revise Iran’s budgetary structure and tax higher income households. By pressuring the government to revise the 2020 budget, radical hardliners who support former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have backed Qalibaf.
After meeting with the hardline Guardian Council, Qalibaf agreed to a joint research project on population management and the country’s welfare system, as well as to expand cooperation on electoral laws. His first piece of legislation is a three-tier bill that includes legal and financial support for environmental protection programs, a reduction in detention time in Iran’s notorious prisons, and a proposal to start a direct air service between Iran and Kuwait. This piece of legislation is intended to win Qalibaf popular support.
Qalibaf has said that he intends to create a cohesive Parliament, resist domestic and foreign threats, and follow the Supreme Leader. He wants Parliament not to compromise on Iran’s revolutionary ideals, and follow the legacy of Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force who was assassinated by the United States. Tellingly, he appointed Hamid Aslani as the executive deputy of the Parliament. Aslani was a close friend of Soleimani.
Approximately two-thirds of Iran’s new Parliament members are current or former members of the IRGC and the Basij forces. In the previous Parliament, there were around 15 IRGC members. The new Parliament has at least 9 brigadiers and 18 commanders, indicating that the IRGC could easily control the legislative branch.
The IRGC-backed Qalibaf is making foreign policy announcements usually reserved for the Iranian president. In recent tweets, he suggested that Iran should not compromise with the United States and quickly dismissed talks, calling them futile. However, he emphasized that Iran was not looking for a clash either.
Qalibaf wants to strengthen Iran’s foreign relations with major powers such as Russia and China to help the country circumvent US sanctions. He has criticized Rouhani’s policy of ignoring Iran’s neighbors while pursuing rapprochement with the West.
The new Parliament’s responsibilities and prerogatives could expand under Qalibaf’s leadership including greater involvement in foreign policy decision-making. But it remains to be seen if he can reduce the gap between state managers. Politically, he needs to work with the government to overcome Iran’s internal and foreign challenges, but he could end up hiding behind his slogans to conceal his failings and inability to put forward a cohesive plan to lift the situation of the country amid US sanctions and COVID-19. If this does happen, tensions could increase in the next year between Iran’s government and Parliament, and Iran could descend into further disarray. Thus, Qalibaf might squander his chance for a presidential bid next year, and polarize Iranian politics despite his promise to avoid this specter.