November 18, 2008


Ahmadinejad and the shifting political environment in Iran (Benedetta Berti, 13 November 2008, Online Opinion)

As dismal economic conditions eroded public support for the president, Ahmadinejad came under mounting criticism from some of his fellow conservatives. Even the president's spiritual advisor, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, said that the government had failed to deal with rising poverty.

There has also been a growing consensus that Ahmadinejad's anti-Western rhetoric and confrontational diplomatic approach to the nuclear crisis plays into the hands of Iran's enemies. Iran's head nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, resigned over irreconcilable differences with the president.

Two strong indications of Ahmadinejad's diminished political clout can be found in the December 2006 defeat of his "Scent of Service" (Boo-ye Khosh-e Khedmat) coalition in elections for municipal councils and the Assembly of Experts (the latter paving the way for the ascension of Rafsanjani as head of the body in September 2007).

In the lead-up to Iran's March-April 2008 parliamentary elections, Ahmadinejad's United Front of Principlists was opposed by the Broad Principlists Coalition, an ad hoc alliance of his conservative opponents, including popular mayor of Tehran Mohammad Baqer Qaliba, former head of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezaie, and Larijani. Ahmadinejad wisely decided at the last minute to participate in a broad alliance with his conservative opponents, which netted his coalition 117 of 290 seats, while giving his conservative rivals 53. The reformist bloc obtained 46 seats.

After the new parliament convened in May, the pragmatists obtained an important victory with the election of Larijani as parliament speaker, replacing Qolamali Haddad Adel.

Larijani, a very close political ally of Ayatollah Khamenei and a former member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, has used his position to create strategic alliances with the different legislative blocs, with the ultimate objective of boosting the parliament's efficiency and independence from the executive.

While strengthening their role within the Majlis, Ahmadinejad's conservative rivals also appear to have their eyes on winning the 2009 presidential election. The Broad Principlists Coalition's potential candidates include Larijani, whose conservative ideology and background have ensured him the trust of a large part of the conservative bloc. Another potential presidential challenger is Qaliba, who beat the electoral machine of Ahmadinejad (his predecessor as mayor of Tehran) in the capital's municipal elections.

The political strength of this rival conservative bloc may not be sufficient at present to defeat Ahmadinejad, who still commands significant support from the rural poor. However, their influence could grow exponentially if they ally with other anti-Ahmadinejad forces within the Parliament, such as the reformist bloc. Larijani's commitment to the independence of the Majlis could provide a bridge for them to reach out to the reformists, although it is at this point still unclear whether this ad hoc co-operation within the Majlis could ever translate into a broader electoral agreement or into the joint support of a presidential candidate.

In sum, growing popular disaffection toward the president and shifting political alignments indicate that the re-election of Ahmadinejad is not to be taken for granted and that an important part of next electoral race will be disputed internally within the conservative forces. that he wasn't Ayatollah Khamenei's candidate and won't undertake the reforms the Ayatollah needs to save the Republic.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 18, 2008 6:10 AM
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