Leadership: Winds of Change in Iran


December21, 2006: Iran's president Ahmadinejad tried to expand his political power in the recent ( December 15th) elections. He failed, even though all those elections only selected members of local councils and the Assembly of Experts.

The local councils run municipal services. They appoint mayors, and thus indirectly control local government and budgets. This gives them a lot of clout, particularly in larger cities, such as Teheran.

The Assembly is technically the highest constitutional authority in Iran. Its 86-members have the power to select the country's supreme leader, the religious official who is actually above the president and all other branches of government, and has veto power over anything the government tries to do.. It was the Assembly that selected Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, back in 1989.

The elections, particularly those for the Assembly of Experts, shaped up to a contest between supporters of President Ahmadinejad, led by the fiercely conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who has openly denounced democracy as "un-Islamic," and those of former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who, although himself a senior cleric, has proven a much more careful and pragmatic politician.

The results of the December 15th elections are now in. Just as initial returns had indicated, Ahmadinejad and his supporters have lost heavily. The turnout was very large, upwards of 60-percent, compared with only about 12-percent in the last elections, when many disillusioned middle-of-the-road and liberal voters, particularly the young, stayed home. In the five largest cities, "pragmatic conservatives" or outright "reformers" won, including Teheran, where the campaign was more or less a direct referendum on Ahmadinejad and his policies.

Ahmadinejad also lost big time in the elections for the Assembly of Experts, which will be headed by Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who has the backing of 65 of the 86 members. In contrast, the arch-conservatives are split between followers of Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazd, generally regarded as Ahmadinejad's ally, and several other cleric not allied to the president for various reasons.

What this means for the future of Iran is difficult to assess. Ahmadinejad will certainly feel pressure to tone down his act, at least for a while. But the elections do not necessarily mean that there will be significant changes in Iranian policy. To a great extent Ahmadinejad has the same basic goals for Iran as do Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and other "pragmatic" leaders, but is just a lot more over the top about it. While genuine reformers and democrats do exist in Iran, they're split into several factions. And some of the present regime's initiatives are embraced even by the reform-minded. Most Iranians are fiercely proud of the nation's past, and would like to see it again as a major power-broker in the region. Few Iranians oppose the development of nuclear power, though some would prefer it be used for peaceful purposes.

If Ahmadinejad fails to curb his excessive antics, the religious leadership may attempt to remove him. Despite his loss in the elections, Ahmadinejad is very popular with most poverty-stricken, religiously conservative rural Iranians, who form the backbone of the Basij, a national militia rooted in the rural population. But a coup based on the Basij is unlikely. Although on paper, the Basij is about 2 million strong, and thus far larger than the Iranian Armed Forces and the Revolutionary Guard Corps combined, it is poorly organized, trained, and equipped.

Nevertheless, given possible defections from the Armed Forces and Revolutionary Guard, plus some judicious assassinations, Ahmadinejad could get away with seizing power, or perhaps in igniting an Iranian civil war.


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