On 15 December 2006, as the world focused on Iran's nuclear sabre-rattling and holocaust-denying president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Islamic Republic quietly held simultaneous elections for the Assembly of Experts and city councils throughout the country. The official results of the contest offer several important lessons that provide a glimpse into the complex, opaque internal politics of the regime's power-brokers.
The big winner of these two elections - even though his own seat was not up for election - was supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The eighty-six-member Assembly of Experts is officially tasked with the responsibility of overseeing and checking the power of the supreme leader (as well as choosing a new one, should the situation arise) but historically it has uncritically obeyed that leader's commands.
The newly-elected assembly will be no different. Of the 496 candidates who initially registered to compete for the clerical body, only 149 were approved; reformists, independents, and candidates critical of the regime were disqualified. Competition, where there was any, was between fundamentalists and traditionalists equally loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei.
Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Iranian politics in a period of crisis:
Nazenin Ansari, "An ayatollah under siege
(4 October 2006)
Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis"
(24 November 2006)
Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: cracks in the façade"
(11 December 2006)
Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's election backlash"
(19 December 2006)
Dariush Zahedi & Omid Memarian, "Ahmadinejad, Iran and America"
(15 January 2007)
Another winner of the December elections is former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani. In one of the few competitive races in the assembly race, Rafsanjani successfully defended his own seat, finishing first among Tehran province's sixteen elected candidates. Groups affiliated with him also fended off strong challenges and maintained their majority in the institution. Rafsanjani is now well positioned to be the next supreme leader should the 67-year old Khamenei, rumoured to be ailing, die during the assembly's eight-year term.
At the same time, Rafsanjani's victory should not be overstated. The 1,600,000 votes he received in December is fewer than the 1,900,000 he was awarded in Tehran province during the second round of his presidential election campaign in June 2005. Most importantly, the Rafsanjani who retained his seat in the Assembly of Experts is different from the Rafsanjani who ran for president almost two years ago. During this election he positioned himself to obtain the support of the supreme leader, in contrast to 2005 when Khamenei endorsed and mobilised forces against Rafsanjani.
A president under pressure
The clear loser of these elections was current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The coalition his supporters ran under failed in its primary goal of defeating Rafsanjani and his allies. In fact, not a single candidate whose name appeared only on this list won a seat in the assembly. Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, was able to capture a seat in the Assembly of Experts only by aligning himself with traditionalists like Rafsanjani.
Ahmadinejad fared just as poorly in the city-council elections. Of the sixteen seats in Tehran, his supporters captured only two, one of which was won by his sister. Tehran's current mayor (and a personal enemy of Ahmadinejad), Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, is likely to be renominated for his position by two-thirds of the council members.
Meanwhile, reformists managed to capture four seats in Tehran's city council, but their performance was still far from successful. They were able to cut their losses and strengthen their position inside the regime relative to earlier elections - in 2003 they did not win a single seat - but their success was due more to better coalition-building than increased popular support.
For example, reformists gained 28% of the votes for city councils throughout the country, while during the presidential election of 2005 the three reformist candidates gained a combined 35% of the vote. Within the Assembly of Experts their failure was more significant. Their numbers decreased from sixteen to eight, and they now hold only 9% of seats in this body.
Democracy's greatest success came from those candidates who did not, or could not, run for office. With all candidates who could potentially challenge the power structure disqualified, the low turnout was a vote of no confidence in the regime. A turnout of above 60% across the country sounds impressive, but this number is artificially high as it includes numbers from smaller villages where tribalism is more important than political affiliation, and city councils and mayors play an important role in daily life. In larger cities where city councils play an unimportant role turnout was significantly lower. In Tehran, for example - the most politically active and high-profile city - turnout was only 30%.
Ali Afshari is an Iranian political activist and analyst
H Graham Underwood is a researcher and freelance writer living in Washington, DC
Khamenei, the supreme
What, then, are the implications of these elections for the current and future political development of Iran? First, these elections were merely a competition amongst groups inside the current regime. Independent political groups and civil society were entirely absent from this picture, and the results of the election will have little direct impact on the democratisation of Iran.
Second, the elections show that Iran's transformation from an Islamic theocracy to a military autocracy has been suspended. The paramilitary Basij forces and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that brought Ahmadinejad to power were conspicuously absent from these elections. This shows that it is not Ahmadinejad who controls these forces, but rather the supreme leader.
The most pressing question is why Khamenei did not use these forces to support and mobilise for Ahmadinejad. The supreme leader may have felt threatened by the rising power of Ahmadinejad and his allies, or Khamenei may have been pushed by others within the regime not to support the president. With Ahmadinejad's economic policies leading the country towards failure, Khamenei may be distancing himself from Ahmadinejad so Iranians blame Ahmadinejad and not the Islamic Republic for their economic woes.
The most sinister explanation for this is that the supreme leader might be gearing up for a challenge with the world over Iran's uranium enrichment, following the imposition of limited sanctions by the United Nations Security Council in its resolution of 23 December 2006.
Khamenei, by checking the power of Ahmadinejad and gaining the support of groups like Rafsanjani's that may have felt marginalised during the past two years, could be unifying all groups under his command. Today, all members of the Assembly of Experts - whether they are fundamentalist, conservative, traditional or reformist - pledge their allegiance to the supreme leader. The reasons for Khamenei's political manoeuvring may not be fully known right now, but it is clear that his grip on power is as strong as ever.