Did Iran’s Conservative Deputy Speaker Predict a Reformist Election Victory?

Why did a seven-term Iranian parliamentarian with over 28 years working as an MP representing Kerman and Tehran — decide to retire right before what could turn out to be the most important parliamentary elections in the history of the Islamic Republic?

Deputy Parliament Speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar waves goodbye to Iran’s parliament building (via Khabar Online)

63-year-old Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a three-time consecutive deputy parliamentary speaker of parliament (7th, 8th, and 9th parliaments), failed to register this past December during the election registration period, and shortly thereafter he announced that he would be retiring as an MP representing Tehran. Bahonar is an establishment figure with strong revolutionary pedigree. His brother, former Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar, was assassinated in 1981 by the infamous opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK).
 
Bahonar is the secretary general of Islamic Society of Engineers (a political organization comprised of conservative politicians), and since last spring he has had his hands full. The former deputy speaker was tasked early on with uniting a “Conservative Majority Coalition,” to compete with the already active Reformist coalition ahead of the February 2016 election. The goal was to establish a united front of different conservative factions under a single banner, thereby avoiding a repeat of 2013, when a strong reformist-moderate front united behind then-candidate Hassan Rouhani, saw an opening among the different conservative presidential candidates and split the vote; leading to a Rouhani victory. 
 
Acting as an interlocutor, Bahonar brought together and met with different conservative factions and their spiritual leaders over the course of several months, but by October 2015, the former deputy speaker seemed worried and began publicly suggesting that reformists could win and pick up some seats in February’s parliamentary election.

In November 2015, Bahonar joined the “The Principalist Coordinating Council,” a council headed by former speaker and (now outgoing) senior MP Gholamreza Haddad-Adel. The council consisted of three Principlist parliamentary parties — the Steadfastness Front, the Society of the Devotees of the Islamic Revolution, and the Islamic Coalition Party, with the goal of helping unify the Principlist bloc for the upcoming parliamentary elections. When current parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani refused to join the bloc, instead opting to run independently, the writing was on the wall for Bahonar. Not only would he have to recalibrate his political position in order to stay afloat Iran’s fluid factional politicking, but he would have to do some soul searching as well. 
 
On December 25, 2015, Iran’s Fars News reported that Bahonar failed to register for the February 2016 elections, thereby making the tenth parliament his last, for now. The following day, Bahonar spoke to Tasnim News and explained his decision for not running:

“A few months ago I came to the conclusion that I won’t run for parliament in this upcoming election…I tried to make this decision privately. I knew that if some people found out about what I was planning to do, they would try to change my mind, and for this reason, I never made it public.”
“Of course some people thought that I’m not running because I wouldn’t receive enough votes, but I want to tell those people that in the sixth (reformist) parliament, I thought that I wouldn’t receive enough votes to win a seat but I still never withdrew my candidacy. I am confident that the Principalists will be victorious in this election. Of course, the Reformists will also have a strong minority.”
“I feel that 28 years is enough, and at the same time I have a peace of mind that the Principalists will win the election. And I also believe that there are many [MPs] better than me and they can take over speakership.”

By late January, weeks before the election, Bahonar’s predictions on the number of initial seats going to Reformists seemed to be relatively accurate.

In the end, it seems Bahonar conveniently made a wise decision to not run in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Tehran’s 30 seats in parliament all unprecedentedly went to the Reformists and moderates. Both hard-liners and Principalists failed to win a single seat. Even the head of the Principalist Coordinating Council, Haddad-Adel failed to win a seat in Tehran. This is the same Haddad-Adel who not only serves as senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but is also father-in-law to Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader’s influential son.

On February 29, Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour, the President of the World Trade Center in Tehran, took to Twitter to point out out what he thought was obvious.

Sabzalipour’s Tweet in Persian reads: “[Mohammad Reza Bahonar is] the only Principalist that with total cleverness, retired and respectfully declined to run in the election and can hold his head up high.”

Although Bahonar very well could have thought it was time to call it quits for reasons other than the potential for a reformist-moderate sweep in Tehran, his history in parliament provides an interesting look into his possible decision making process. Bahonar has been a representative in the second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth and ninth terms of the parliament. Excluding the first post-revolutionary parliament (1980–1984), the only other assembly that Bahonar failed to win a seat in was the sixth parliament, famously known for being former president Mohammed Khatami’s reformist parliament (2000–2004). Given that Bahonar admitted that he knew early on that he would have a tough time winning a seat against Reformists, one can’t help but think that in addition to all of the factional machinations, the deputy speaker took that loss 16 years ago into consideration when he chose not to run this time around.

In this cartoon, a ski lift scales Iran’s parliament building in Tehran. A cable car representing newly elected MPs, is on its way up to the peak of the building and cries out, “Uncle Bahonar! We are on our way up! Where are you going!?” Bahonar seen dressed in winter attire, is skiing down the other side of the triangular building, saying, “This post isn’t good for me anymore!”
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