Iranian Election a Proxy Fight for Ahmadinejad, Khamenei

Conservatives and hardliners face off in what is a proxy battle between Iran’s supreme leader and president.

Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran attend a meeting in Tehran, December 19, 2010
Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran attend a meeting in Tehran, December 19, 2010 (The Office of the Supreme Leader)

Iranians head to the polls for parliamentary elections on Friday. Because reformist candidates are shut out of the process, a repetition of the unrest that followed 2009’s disputed presidential vote isn’t likely. Rather the election will consolidate conservatives’ grip on power in Tehran even if there are divisions within their ranks.

Parliament is split between factions that are loyal to Iran’s supreme religious leader the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and members who support President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran does not have a disciplined party system. “Parties emerge and dissipate easily,” according to Farnaz Amini who is a PhD candidate at Claremont Graduate University and a contributing analyst for the geostrategic consultancy Wikistrat. “It is common for a series of smaller parties to combine and present a coalition,” she explains.

One such new coalition is the United Front, a group of traditionalists that emerged in response to a call by Khamenei for the principalist parties to join forces. It is led by the “old clerical guard” from Qom, says Amini, “which seeks to maintain clerical rule.”

Their main opposition is the Steadfast Front of the Islamic Revolution or the Islamic Resistance Front which is comprised of followers of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, a powerful reactionary cleric who is an advisor of President Ahmadinejad’s. Although the relationship between the two men has thawed a bit since a rift emerged between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, this faction supports the president but insists that he distances himself from the “deviant current” that is believed to have attempted to undermine the role of the clergy in government.

The clerical class still controls most of the state and bureaucracy but the power and influence of the Revolutionary Guards has grown since Ahmadinejad was first elected president in 2005.

As conservatives and traditionalists compete for supremacy within the religious establishment, the guards may well emerge as the most powerful faction in Iran unless Khamenei is able to force a consensus.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned in 2010 that Iran was sliding into a military dictatorship. The Revolutionary Guards Corps, she said, was gaining influence “across all areas of Iranian security policy and certainly nuclear policy is at the core of it.”

The supreme leader has so far managed the schisms, despite opposition from the Qom clergy, through alliances with ultraconservatives but the elite is fractured over economic policy and the very structure of the Islamic republic.

Inflation is rampant and one out of five Iranians is estimated to be unemployed. Oil exports account for 85 percent of central government revenue but European nations and Japan plan to boycott Iranian crude in protest to its uranium enrichment program. Iran will still be able to sell to China and India but in combination with other trade sanctions, the oil embargo represents a real danger to the Iranian economy.

Friday’s elections will probably not have a significant impact on foreign policy because this is largely outside of the legislature’s purview. Nonetheless, if the president’s allies stage a surprise victory, it could embolden Ahmadinejad to assert himself more independently of the supreme leader and his conservative adherents.

Turnout is expected to be low in the cities which could be a blow to the regime’s legitimacy but the Steadfast Front has an advantage in the countryside says Amini. “Ahmadinejad more than any other president has reached out to the rural areas of Iran and has many supporters in the small cities, towns and villages.”