New dynamics

Print edition : January 12, 2007

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD casting his vote in Teheran on December 15. - REUTERS

Two crucial elections ensure the return of moderates to influential positions in Iran.

ON December 15, Iran witnessed two simultaneous elections, whose results are likely to blunt the sharp hardline edge of its domestic and foreign policy. In the elections to the municipal councils, candidates owing allegiance to the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fared poorly. The arch-conservatives also did badly in the elections to the Assembly of Experts, a congressional body of 86 clerics. Here, the old warhorse Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani garnered the highest number of votes. Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, considered Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, finished in the sixth position.

The elections to the Assembly of Experts are crucial because the elected members, who would serve an-eight-year term, can influence decision-making at the highest level. In the Iranian constitutional system that emerged after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Supreme Leader wields unrivalled power. The 67-year-old Seyyed Ali Khamenei holds this office currently.

The Assembly of Experts plays a crucial role in selecting, as well as monitoring the activities of, the Supreme Leader. In theory, it is even empowered to remove him. However, in practice this body would find it virtually impossible to turn hostile to the country's top cleric and political leader.

Paradoxically, the Supreme Leader plays a significant role in shaping the composition of the Assembly. The 12-member Council of Guardians, a conservative body that owes allegiance to him, vets all the contestants. The Supreme Leader appoints six members directly. The Council of Guardians conducts a difficult theological examination for those aspiring to get elected to the Assembly, thereby playing a key role in screening them before the elections.

Ahead of the polls, Iranian media portrayed the contest as a clash between Rafsanjani the "shark" and Yazdi the "crocodile". The two individuals represent opposing trends within conservative Iran. Rafsanjani is seen as a pragmatist, a consummate deal-maker, whose natural allies are the bazaaris, or a network of Iranian business groups having deep domestic roots. In politics, the former President, schooled in realpolitik, has been open to negotiations and has opposed Iran's international isolation. Unlike Rafsanjani, who represents the strain of moderate conservatism, Yazdi is a hardliner representing an ideologically strict school of Shia Islam.

VOTERS LINE UP in Teheran during the city council and Assembly of Experts elections.-HASAN SARBAKHSHIANAP

It is well known that Yazdi exercises substantial influence over Ahmadinejad and his key supporters, who represent the Abadgaran or Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran, an alliance of conservative political parties and organisations. Key members of the Abadgaran cut their teeth in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. Many of them fought in this war. As a result, they acquired considerable influence within the ranks of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the elite defenders of the Revolution. The group first asserted itself during the previous municipal elections, which led to the emergence of Ahmadinejad as the Mayor of Teheran. Its power profile expanded during the subsequent parliamentary elections, where its candidates outperformed the reformists loyal to former President Mohammad Khatami. The presidency fell to the alliance with Ahmadinejad's election to the post in June 2005. Yazdi's poor showing, therefore, halts the forward march of the Abadgaran, as it would now be unable to wield much influence on the most powerful organs of state power.

The elections to the local bodies have reinforced the decline in the influence of the ultra-conservatives. Nearly 2,33,000 candidates contested 1,13,000 council seats in cities, towns and villages. The contestants included 5,000 women.

As in the case of the Assembly of Experts, the local body elections reinforced the clout of moderate conservatives. Reformists and women's groups also gained ground in these polls.

In Teheran, supporters of Ahmadinejad's arch rival, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, secured seven of the 15 seats. Qalibaf, a former commander of the IRGC's air force, contested the presidential election last year and lost to Ahmadinejad. After his strong showing, he is expected to retain his position as the Mayor of Teheran. Incidentally, Ahmadinejad used his position as the Mayor as a springboard to the presidential office.

FORMER PRESIDENTS MOHAMMAD Khatami (left) and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani at a polling station in Teheran.-AFP

The Pleasant Scent of Service, a group close to the President, managed just three seats in the municipal council. Ahmadinejad's sister, who got the highest number of votes in this group, stood in the eighth position. The President's supporters won less than 20 per cent of the seats nationwide. None of his candidates won seats on the councils in the cities of Shiraz, Bandar Abbas, Sari, Zanjan, Rasht, Ilam, Sanandaj and Kerman.

Starting from scratch, the reformist camp performed creditably, wresting four seats in the Teheran Municipal Council. The reformists claim that they have won 40 per cent of the seats outside Teheran. In several city councils, nearly half of the representatives are women.

Despite the shift in power dynamics, Iran's position on two key foreign policy issues is unlikely to change. For instance, on the nuclear issue, there is a consensus that the country must master the nuclear fuel cycle on its own. Iranians, in other words, are united on the country having nuclear capability. In practical terms, that would mean a continued unwillingness of the Iranian establishment to halt uranium enrichment, as demanded by the United Nations Security Council, before initiating substantive talks. If at all, the recent elections might influence only one aspect of the domestic nuclear debate in Iran. The intelligentsia is currently divided on whether the acquisition of nuclear capability alone is enough, or, should it, at some point of time, be turned into a full-scale weapons programme.

On Iraq and Afghanistan, there again is a consensus that the United States must withdraw its troops from the two countries. Iranian officials have also been emphasising that U.S. troops must quit from countries in the Gulf. During a recent address in Dubai at the Arab Strategy Forum, Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said: "The first sign that Washington has changed its strategy, and is willing to engage in dialogue to solve the region's problems, will be the withdrawal of forces from Iraq and elsewhere in the region." However, after the recent elections, it remains to be seen whether, in the coming days, the volume of rhetoric seeking a U.S. withdrawal from the entire Gulf would be lowered or not.

Iranians are of the view that their alliance with the Syrians and their influence on the Hizbollah have paid them rich dividends, especially after the Hizbollah's effective resistance to Israel's summer invasion of Lebanon. The outcome of the elections is unlikely to result in a change of this stance, which is seen as giving Iran enormous leverage in West Asia. A change, however, might emerge in Ahmadinejad's advocacy for the destruction of the state of Israel, a view that several moderate conservatives do not share.

The stalling of the Abadgaran's advance, however, could have interesting implications for some major aspects of domestic politics in Iran. The complexity of the relationship between Ahmadinejad's supporters with the IRGC is likely to come under the scanner. There is no doubt that the Abadgaran has strong ties with the IRGC as well as the Basijis, the motorcycle-borne storm troopers who come into their own when mass public protests have to be broken up. Many see these connections as posing a challenge to the current political establishment in Iran. However, analysts say that the relationship between the Abadgaran and the Revolutionary Guards need not be overstated. They point out that Rafsanjani and Qalibaf are also well acquainted with powerful elements within the IRGC. Whether the elections will gradually result in changes in the IRGC hierarchy and the power equations within is unpredictable.

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