The parliamentary elections in Iran on 14 March 2008 are the latest stage in a long political drama. The headline story in their aftermath has focused on the claimed success of various factions of conservatives, including that of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A less explored but equally interesting theme is what has happened to the reformists in Iran, their influence in the election, and what the results say about their prospects in the future. An intriguing feature of the majlis election is that this theme can be traced through the performance of the conservatives themselves.
Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs (Portobello
Books, 2005). She spent her formative years in Iran,
attended university in Britain
and worked in London,
and then returned to her birthplace to work for an NGO for a number of years.
Today she lives in Britain.
Also by Nasrin Alavi on openDemocracy:
"Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fear" (1 November 2005)
"Inside Iran" (14 February 2006)
"Iran: the elite against the people" (22 May 2006)
"Tehran's red card to human rights" (23 June 2006)
"Iran: cracks in the façade" (11 December 2006)
"Iran's election backlash" (19 December 2006)
"Iran's attack blowback" (5 February 2007)
"Women in Iran: repression and resistance" (5 March 2007)
"Axis of Evil vs Great Satan: wrestling to normality" (2 May 2007)
"The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)
"Iran's circle of power" (23 October 2007)
"Iran: the uses of intelligence" (6 December 2007)"Iran's new order" (28 January 2008)
In the 1997 presidential election campaign nearly 80% of eligible Iranian voters participated and a massive 70% of them voted for the little-known cleric Mohammad Khatami. In this and accompanying elections to the majlis (parliament), the Iranian people both gave enormous backing to Khatami's reform agenda and demonstrated their more general desire for change. The reformists' emergence was in part a response to the desire for a new beginning in Iran after almost two decades of the Islamic Republic, dominated by the long war with Iraq (1980-88) and an economic and political model that no longer seemed capable of meeting the Iranian people's needs. The reconstruction of the country, reformists argued, meant integrating Iran into the world economy and global society; and this in turn would help accelerate its democratic transformation. There was therefore a link between economic and political progress. The presidency of Khatami was in this sense the expression of deeper changes in Iranian society.
Khatami's programme included a reaching out to the west in the form of a "dialogue among civilisations". This propitious theme could only work as a lever of change if it found an echo on "the other" side, and after 11 September 2001 this dwindled into near-inaudibility. As the invasion of Afghanistan was followed by a military build-up against Iraq and an overall increase in belligerent rhetoric from Washington (notwithstanding the sympathetic response among many Iranians, including in the political class, to the events of 9/11), the conservative establishment inside Iran's complex power-system saw an opportunity to restore their hegemony. The argument that Iran was being encircled by the presence of thousands of hostile United States troops in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Azerbaijan), and that this newly "tough neighbourhood" required a combative response from Tehran, sounded convincing. The failure of Khatami to make significant progress on the economic front reinforced the sense of reformist drift and conservative comeback. The ground was prepared - although few at the time clearly anticipated it - for the election of an economic populist and hardline nationalist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the presidential election of June 2005.
Behind the curtain
Almost three years on, the seeds of "dialogue" between east and west - more particularly in the geopolitical field, Washington and Tehran - have withered. Instead, suspicion, a siege mentality and rumours of war reign: factors which help sustain the fears that Iranian radicalism has for so long thrived on. On both sides, the leading dynamic appears to be towards greater hostility rather than compromise. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - who as recently as January 2008 was expressing disfavour with the president - used an address to the Assembly of Experts in February 2008 to commend Ahmadinejad's firm stand towards the international community over Iran's nuclear plans; "the president's role and his resistance in the progress of the nuclear issue has been very visible", he said. Meanwhile, George W Bush continues to call Iran "the world's leading state sponsor of terror", and the resignation on 11 March of Admiral William Fallon (the commander of United States forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, who had expressed opposition to war with Iran in a magazine interview) seems to confirm that the "war option" remains very much alive (see Paul Rogers, "Israel, the United States and Iran: the tipping-point", 13 March 2008).
In these circumstances, Iran's conservative establishment - increasingly aware of the need to instal mechanisms to prolong itself in power - has been systematic in putting in place strict measures to forestall any possibility of a reformist resurgence (see "Iran's new order", 28 January 2008). The Guardian Council - which vets potential candidates for loyalty to the Islamic Republic - forbade at least 1,700 potential reformist candidates from participation in the election (including most of the tendency's popular figureheads). At the same time, the council was lenient both to relatively unknown figures and to less deserving reformists (such as Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, whose mismanagement of the Tehran municipality during the Khatami era effectively opened the gates to a takeover by Ahmadinejad and his allies).
Between the lines
These manoeuvres made the result in the 14 March election predictable if not inevitable: a two-thirds parliamentary majority for the conservatives, though with Khatami-era reformists still holding a significant minority (and even managing a small increase in the number of their MPs). The latter trend indicates that if this is a victory for Ahmadinejad and his supporters (as so many of the immediate post-election news reports suggested) it is a heavily qualified one.
The evidence for this is in two areas. First, the results themselves. The dominant clash in the election campaign (after the exclusion of so many reformists) was between what might be called the "moderate" right against Ahmadinejad's extreme right - and the former, which was vocal in its criticism of the president, made real gains. The most striking example is Ali Larijani, who resigned from his position as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator in October 2007 following disagreements with the president. Larijani's stance has brought a political reward; in the religious capital of Qom he won a landslide victory, receiving 76% of the vote against candidates close both to the president and his religious mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. Larijani, who celebrated his victory by calling on the government to amend its policies, is being touted as th likely new speaker of the majlis; if elected to this position he could use it to undermine Ahmadinejad's power and even render his rival a lame-duck president.
The second piece of evidence that this is not an unqualified victory for Ahmadinejad and his followers is the economic factors present in the vote. Iran's conservatives cannot risk losing their support-base amongst Iran's pious poor, yet the president's economic policies have entailed rising inflation and spiralling property prices which have made the poor poorer and the rich richer. Thus, most prominent conservative candidates campaigned on promises to correct this course.
The blatant signs of conspicuous consumption that have bloomed under Ahmadinejad's presidency do not sit well with traditional, provincial constituents. The car showrooms on Tehran's Shariati Street that in the 1990s displayed restored (and coveted) jalopies are now crammed with sparkling new Mercedes-Benz vehicles often marketed (after Iranian import tariffs are added) at well over $100,000. The cost of housing has more than doubled in the last year alone; an apartment in prosperous north Tehran with a $1 million-dollar tag is considered routine. An apartment must be furnished, and paintings of Iranian contemporary artists such as Mohammad Ali Taraghijah also now command six-figure sums from moneyed Iranians. The property boom - fast spreading to the rest of the country - has also created a huge swathe of people who are excluded from the market with little or no hope of ever buying a home; these are the very people who are - or who become - the loyal supporters of conservative candidates.
Beyond the headlines
Among openDemocracy's articles about Iran and
the United States:
Dariush Zahedi & Omid Memarian, "Ahmadinejad, Iran and America" (15 January 2007)
Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)
Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)
Sanam Vakil, "Iran's hostage politics" (2 April 2007)
Nazenin Ansari, "Tehran's new political dynamic" (16 April 2007)
Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)
Jan De Pauw, "Iran, the United States and Europe: the nuclear complex" (5 December 2007)
The majlis election is therefore more complex in its outcome than it may first have appeared. It also carries implications for the presidential poll due in 2009. In particular - and to echo the point made at the beginning of this article - although this election may be loosely labelled a conservative victory, one legacy of Khatami's reform movement is that many conservative candidates today are winning votes by pledging polices espoused by Khatami's allies in the past.
An example is Ahmadinejad's successor-but-one as Tehran's mayor - and also now a conservative presidential hopeful - Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf. The mayor - whose popularity was increased by the success of his snow-clearing measures this winter - was at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2008 trying to get western companies to invest in Iran. This followed a wrangle with Ahmadinejad supporters in October 2007 over plans to allow Benetton to set up four stores in the capital. This is a long fight, between those who believe in tight state control and those who realise that the only way to diminish Iran's economic woes is to open up to the west; and at present it is being conducted within the conservative ranks.
There are other conservative opponent of Ahmadinejad apart from Ghalibaf who have come full circle. The former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who (since September 2007) heads the Assembly of Experts and chairs the Expediency Council, was (along with many of his allies) conspicuously quiet during the run-up to these elections. In October, Rafsanjani - who was president from 1989-97 - told a student gathering that "humankind goes toward democracy and freedom, and public opinion can not be imprisoned" and that in the age of communications "censorship is pointless". Rafsanjani's political record (and its place in the context of Iran's political system) make such an utterance seem almost surreal. Yet it signals that some leading conservatives are trying to develop an independent power-base amongst a different sort of constituents.
The fact that regime heavyweights such as Rafsanjani are quietly canvassing amongst reform-minded young people is evidence that the success of a new generation of reformists in future elections - articulating bold ideas in sincere and appealing language - cannot be discounted. After all, the experience of Iranian elections, even under the country's severely restricted political process, shows that it can produce surprising results. The presidential elections of both Mohammad Khatami (1997) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005) came as a great shock to most outside observers. In 2009, conservative presidential aspirants such as Ali Larijani and Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf may well be challenged by reformists such as the grandson of the founder of the Iranian revolution, Hassan Khomeini.
Thus, in both their influence on current conservative policies and in their own continuing presence, the reformists who led the parliamentary reform movement after 1997 have - temporary political defeats and setbacks notwithstanding - irrevocably left their mark on Iranian society. Today, they are not sitting on their hands but preparing for the 2009 election. This is where the possible candidature of Hassan Khomeini is interesting. Unlike most offspring of the clerical elite he volunteered for and fought on the frontline during the war with Iraq, and is widely respected for that. His outspoken criticism of the powerful head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, is proof that he has the confidence to stand up to anyone. Hassan Khomeini appears genuinely to believe in reform. And he is one reformist that "they" will not be able to disqualify.