Features | Politics | Central Asia

What Iran’s Election Means

Iranians are heading to the polls for parliamentary elections. The results will give a big clue about Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s intentions.

The results of the upcoming parliamentary elections in Iran, scheduled for March 2, will tell us much about Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ambitions and concerns, but little about what the people of Iran want.

This is because in all likelihood, these elections will be anything but democratic. It will be the Iranian supreme leader who decides who the winners and losers of these elections will be, and he won’t want to leave things to chance. With U.S.-led sanctions hurting his regime and undermining his legitimacy since the fraudulent 2009 presidential election, control of the regime is now more important than ever for Khamenei. This’s why he won’t want – or allow – the results of tomorrow’s election to be decided by anyone other than himself.

Fearing a low turnout, the Iranian regime will also likely come up with its own figure for how many people voted, so expect the official figure to be at least 60 percent, if not much higher.

There are more than 60 different factions participating in these elections, but three groups stand out as the most powerful –President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s allies, backers of the ultra-conservative and messianic Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi (currently a member of the Assembly of Experts), and the United Principalist Front, which is made up of various conservative and traditional forces. The reformist allies of Mir HosseinMousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, meanwhile, have no chance of winning as they have been barred from even competing in the poll.

In the last parliamentary election, Khamenei gave a majority of seats to the pro-Ahmadinejad Jebhe-ye Mottahed-e Osulgarayan (United Principalist Front) faction, by allowing more of their candidates to qualify than their chief rivals, the anti-Ahmadinejad Etelaf-e Faragir-e Osulgarayan (Broad Principalist Coalition) faction.

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But Ahmadinejad’s supporters are expected to do badly tomorrow, for a number of reasons. The most important of these is that Ahmadinejad has fallen out with Khamenei since last May. This is a problem for the president because it’s due to Khamenei’s support that Ahmadinejad won the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections. The same goes for the success of his supporters in the 2008 parliamentary elections. With Ahmadinejad’s relations with Khamenei deteriorating, and with growing tensions with elements within the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, the prospects for Ahmadinejad and his supporters are poor. It would be a huge upset if Ahmadinejad’s faction does somehow do well, especially as concerns grow that the weakening of Ahmadinejad’s is posing a threat to the stability of the regime.

The two groups with a better chance tomorrow are Yazdi’s ultra-conservative Paydari (steadfastness) faction and the comparatively moderate conservative United Principalists faction, whose members include the current Majles speaker Ali Larijani. The spiritual head of this faction is the current head of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani.

It’s unclear which group Khamenei will choose as the winner of most seats in the Majles, but his choice will likely be influenced by a few key issues.

One is the level of confidence that Khamenei has in regime stability: a win by hardline Yazdi supporters, some of whom are believed to be close to Iran’s intelligence community, could be interpreted as a sign that Iran’s supreme leader feels vulnerable, and thus needs the support of sworn far right loyalists close to the regime’s security apparatus in the Majles to protect him. Should he choose the comparatively more moderate conservatives, it could be interpreted more as a sign of confidence, because unlike Mesbah supporters, the supporters of the United Principalist Faction would ask more questions about Khamenei's policies.

Another factor is the 2013 presidential elections. Although Khamenei has stated that the position of the presidency in Iran could be ended and replaced by that of a prime minister elected by the parliament, there’s no guarantee that this will actually transpire. Even if Khamenei does go through with this plan, it’s unlikely to be done in time for next year’s presidential elections. In all likelihood this will be postponed for the 2017 elections as a sudden change could have undesirable and destabilizing consequences for the regime. Whichever faction Khamenei appoints as the winner in the 2013 elections could provide us with an important clue about the faction from which Iran’s next president will come from. This wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. Previous Majles elections, such as the 2003 poll in which the conservatives triumphed despite the fact that the country was being run by a reformist president, prepared the ground and offered an important clue about the rise of hardliners that culminated in Ahmadinejad’s 2005 presidential win.

A final factor is Iran’s attitude towards its nuclear program. Yazdi’s supporters are far right ultra-conservatives who are firmly set against compromise with the West.  Although the United Principalist Front also supports the nuclear program, they are relatively moderate and would be more open to compromise. The presence of senior figures members such as Larijani and former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati as their spokesman strongly indicates the more moderate views of this faction compared with that of Mesbah’s faction. Although the parliament isn’t in charge of decision making for the nuclear program, should Khamenei choose Yazdi’s faction, it would be a sign Khamenei is becoming more hardline, which in turn could also impact Iran’s approach towards the West on this issue.

The fact is that should Khamenei decide to align himself with Mesbah’s supporters, it would mean aligning himself with the fringes, rather than the conservative mainstream, which the United Principalist Front represents. Khamenei made the mistake of aligning himself with the Ahmadinejad fringe in the 2009 elections. Will he make the same mistake tomorrow?