Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was dealt an embarrassing blow on 15 December 2006 in Iran's twin votes for local councils and the Assembly of Experts. After only eighteen months in power, voters showed their disillusionment over the Iranian president's unfulfilled economic promises. Allies of the president have failed to win control of any local council; the results reveal the victory of pragmatic politicians, technocrats, moderate conservatives and reformists.
The former president (1989-97) Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - endorsed by reformists in a new alliance - secured a landslide win for a seat on the powerful eighty-six-member Assembly of Experts that oversees the work of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Although Ahmadinejad's spiritual guide Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi was able to gain a place on the assembly, he is amongst a tiny minority; a close scrutiny of the results shows that 80% of the assembly members are longstanding allies of Rafsanjani.
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" (November 2005)
"Iran: the elite against the people" (May 2006)
"Tehran's red card to human rights"
(23 June 2006)
"Iran: cracks in the façade"
(11 December 2006)
The Rafsanjani bloc's win is a strong indication of the electorate's displeasure with Ahmadinejad's oppressive policies at home and aggressive policies abroad. The pragmatic Rafsanjani, who has been openly at loggerheads with the president, told a pre-election gathering of clerics not to over-emphasise America's woes in the region; "Iran's nuclear file is still dangerous", he said, and "it cannot be solved with slogans".
Ahmadinejad has inflamed Iran's nuclear row with the west, leaving the country vulnerable to United Nations sanctions. The electorate's disapproval appears to be shared even by Iran's clerical elite. In Iran's Byzantine network of government agencies, the twelve-member Guardian Council oversees all elections. In the past has used its veto power to reject mostly progressive candidates, but this time round many of the Assembly of Experts candidates aligned with Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi were also disbarred. In the final count they lacked both the candidate numbers and the public support to carve significant power within the assembly.
Since his election in June 2005, President Ahmadinejad has evolved into a recognised symbol of Islamic defiance. He appears to have thrived in the oxygen of media publicity that his inflammatory statements and anti-Israel pronouncements have brought him; most recently, he has gone as far as hosting a Tehran conference casting doubt on the holocaust.
Yet inside Iran - the country with the largest Jewish community outside of Israel in the middle east - only the conference's organisers and the hateful crew that attended seemed to know about it; most Iranian citizens were oblivious to the gathering.
The former (Mohammad Khatami-era) vice-president and cleric Mohammad Ali Abtahi is among many others in Iran to have condemned the conference; he called it "irrelevant to the history of Iran or Islam or to the needs of the people", adding that such a conference "cruelly places the people of Iran - to be perceived by the world - as flanking Nazis and fascists".
The election results strongly signal that Iran's last desperate grab at revolutionary resurgence is finally fizzling out (see Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolutionary spasm", 1 July 2006).
The lesson is that the United States and her allies must move away from the "axis of evil" mindset. The US, by playing sparring-partner with radicals like Ahmadinejad, is only empowering them in the region. The US must catch up with the fluid realities of a country slowly but surely moving towards reform. Beating the same rhetorical drum merely demonstrates how little Washington understands what is going on in Iran and how distant it is from figuring out what to do next.