Iranian officials announced the final results of last Friday’s parliamentary elections today, confirming weekend reports that conservative supporters of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have routed conservative supporters of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
With reformers and moderates largely boycotting the election, Iranian conservatives were left to contest the 290 seats in Iran’s National Consultative Assembly. With 65 seats yet to be determined in a second round in April, it appears that Ahmadinejad has been sidelined as a lame duck with just over a year to go in his second and final term as president — term limits prohibit Ahmadinejad from running in the 2013 election. Even Parvin Ahmadinejad, the president’s sister, failed to secure a seat in the parliament from the city of Garmsar, the president’s hometown.
The result makes it very unlikely that any Ahmadinejad ally, such as presidential chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, will successfully replace Ahmadinejad in the 2013 presidential election (the idea would have been a Russia-like Putin-Medvedev play that would allow Ahmadinejad a permanent base of power in Iranian politics and a workaround through presidential term limits).
Although the Supreme Leader has since 1979 been the central force of Iranian political power, Khamenei has not wielded nearly as much religious or political authority as his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had the religious authority within Shi’a Islam nearly equivalent to that of a pope, in addition to being the genuinely popular leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Accordingly, other religious elites, from clerics to members of Iran’s quasi-independent Guardian Council, have taken a correspondingly greater role in governing Iran since Khamenei became the Supreme Leader in 1989.
As explained by Hooman Majd in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran:
The Supreme Leader theoretically wields the kind of political power that would be the envy of any pope…. The Sepah [Republican Guards] to him, but he is also the commander in chief of the regular armed forces. He also has direct responsibility for foreign policy, which cannot be conducted without his direct involvement and approval…, but although he is smart enough to stay above the fray of domestic politics, leaving it to the parliament, the judiciary (which he also directly controls), and the president, he can at any time of his choosing inject himself into the process and “correct” a flawed policy or decision. He also, importantly as far as a nervous West is concerned, controls Iran’s nuclear program, as an issue of national security, and has the final say on all matters relating to it.
Al Jazeera’s helpful primer on Iran’s complicated political system notes that Iran’s parliament lacks much real power anyway, with its role limited to budgetary matters, confirming cabinet ministers and questioning government officials. This makes it much easier for reformers and moderates to boycott the elections in order to make a bigger point in the next presidential election, and amplifies the showdown between the two factions of Iranian conservatives.
While Khamenei and his allies easily prevented moderate former president Mohammed Khatami from implementing any serious reforms during his presidency from 1997 to 2005, Khamenei has also had his differences with Ahmadinejad, whose conservatism has always been more rooted in working-class populism than in any religious authority.
The tensions were apparent enough during the emergence of the “Green movement” following the 2009 election that reelected Ahmadinejad, which was widely seen as fraudulent. Ahmadinejad’s reelection, and the Green movement’s ensuing protests, led the Supreme Leader to take unprecedented moves to stifle dissent with lethal force. But the split came to the forefront of Iranian politics only in 2011, when Ahmadinejad attempted to make unilateral appointments; when Khamenei intervened, Ahmadinejad refused to meet with his Cabinet for 11 days.
With Ahmadinejad now fully chastened by the parliamentary result, the task now will be for Khamenei’s supporters to consolidate their gains as they prepare for a high-profile presidential contest next year — all the more so given the certainty that the Green movement will not so easily boycott that election and given the increased international sanctions and U.S. and Israeli bellicosity with respect to Iran’s nuclear program (a story that even today far eclipsed any domestic Iranian developments).