Iran’s Elections: Conservatives Battle Each Other, While the Ayatullah ‘Runs’ Against the U.S.

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Ahmad Halabisaz / Xinhua Press / Corbis

Iranians walk past electoral posters for upcoming parliamentary elections on a street in Tehran on Feb. 28, 2012

For those seeking to understand Iran’s parliamentary elections, an unlikely analogy might be the GOP presidential primary race: Iran’s poll is a fiercely competitive, bare-knuckled fight for power. Like the GOP primary, the slate of candidates is confined entirely to conservatives, who profess commitment to the same basic ideology even as they rip their rivals’ will and ability to implement it. For the millions of Iranian voters who backed the opposition Green Movement in the 2009 presidential poll that re-elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amid widespread charges of fraud, Friday’s vote has about equivalent relevance as a GOP primary does to America’s registered Democrats and independents.

Nobody is expecting a repeat of the street protests that shook the Islamic Republic to its core following the allegations of rigging of the 2009 poll because the opposition has been literally barred from running candidates by the clerical body that determines eligibility. The movement’s key leaders remain under long-term house arrest, its activist core violently suppressed. That’s why this year, the opposition is simply urging its supporters to stay home. And to the extent that they do stay away, whether out of support for the opposition or simple apathy, they nonetheless weaken the regime’s efforts to showcase electoral turnout as a sign of the popular legitimacy they claim for the Islamic Republic’s political system.

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The narrowness of the choices on offer has done nothing to cool the ferocity of the campaign, however, because of the vicious intensity of the power struggle that broke out among conservatives after they’d seen off the Green Movement’s challenge in 2009. The parliamentary poll sets the scene for next year’s presidential poll and allows the faction loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei to head off the challenge mounted by the more nationalist conservatives aligned with Ahmadinejad. The Supreme Leader backed Ahmadinejad in 2009, but turned on him within months as it became clear that the upstart President was looking to shift the locus of power within the regime from the clergy to the government and the security forces, and recast the ruling ideology in less Islamist and more nationalist tones. Ahmadinejad has been decisively beaten in the ensuing power struggle — even losing some of the support within the clergy and the powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps on which he had relied — and his faction enters Friday’s elections on the defensive. Fighting it out in the public sphere, where votes can be bought with government handouts and promises of more redistributive economic measures, offers better prospects for the populist President who courts the support of the impoverished rural and smaller-city folk by running against the Revolutionary elite.

The Supreme Leader’s to-do list for the elections, then, is simple: seal the demise of the “deviant” Ahmadinejad faction and restore the legitimacy that the regime claims from holding ideologically restricted, but nonetheless competitive, elections. By keeping the opposition out of the elections and the political institutions, Khamenei has ensured there can be no reformist challenge from within the system as it had emerged so dramatically in 2009. But that exercise may demonstrably undermine the legitimacy of the political system in the eyes of many who still believed in 2009 that their right to vote gave them some say over their country’s direction. It’s unclear how many of the 48 million Iranians eligible to vote will actually bother to cast ballots, although it’s a relatively safe bet that the regime will announce that a significant majority of them showed up at the polls.

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Khamenei is demanding that Iranians show up to vote as a national duty, couching it as an act of rebuke to the West whose sanctions pressure is corroding their standard of living. While much of the anger generated by sanctions is directed at the West rather than at the regime, it’s far from clear that they’ll accept the Ayatullah’s logic that turning out to vote for his regime is a means of retaliation for Western pressure.

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The elections are unlikely to have any effect on the nuclear standoff, of course, because on that issue Iran’s defiance is a point of political consensus despite tactical differences. While some analysts suggest Ahmadinejad, seeking domestic political advantage, might be more open to a compromise with the West, that’s largely speculation — it’s hardly a stance on which his faction is campaigning and would be politically suicidal in an intraconservative race. Iran’s nuclear decisions are entirely in the hands of the Supreme Leader and his advisers.

The fact that Khamenei is making his get-out-the-vote appeal by painting the elections as an opportunity to rebuke the West suggests that he recognizes an opportunity in the wave of nationalist anger, even among Iranians opposed to the regime, being stirred by the pain of economic sanctions and the threat of military attack. The Supreme Leader appears to have concluded that the sound of sabers rattling from afar may be the best available tonic for the regime’s domestic political woes.

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