Hamburg, Germany (Spiegel Online) The vote in Iran for local posts and for the Assembly of Experts was the first ballot-box test for President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nezhad. He did not receive high marks, Iranian-born member of German parliament Omid Nouripour told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The appalling Tehran Holocaust conference is over. Although this collection of questionable qualifiers and dubious deniers of the Shoah triggered a worldwide wave of indignation, it also reinforced ties between radical right-wing forces in the West and anti-Semitic fanatics in the Islamic world. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nezhad once again managed to paint himself as a lone hero who, in contrast to leaders in the Arab world, continues to seriously oppose "the Zionist state" -- Israel.
The elections this weekend were Ahmadi Nezhad's first true progress report as president, but the results suggest that he may have been unsuccessful.
The timing -- and message -- of the conference was not accidental. It came just days before last Friday's elections to determine the make-up of Iran's so-called Assembly of Experts. There were also local elections, the first since Ahmadi Nezhad was elected president in 2005. Back then, Ahmadi Nezhad was a relatively unknown and modest-seeming man who campaigned on a platform of creating jobs. His rival, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was, for many Iranians, a symbol of nepotism and corruption.
The elections this weekend, then, were Ahmadi Nezhad's first true progress report as president. He was hoping to derive political capital from the global attention he reaped as a result of the conference, with the objective of strengthening his power base in the election. But the results so far suggest that he may have been unsuccessful.
Ahmadi Nezhad's archrival, Rafsanjani, had little difficulty in being re-elected to the Assembly of Experts, one of the most important bodies in the Islamic Republic. The Assembly appoints and monitors the revolutionary leader and reviews the ideological suitability of candidates for the office of president. And Rafsanjani received more votes than any other Tehran candidate.
Even more indicative than the personal rivalry between Ahmadi Nezhad and Rafsanjani, though, is the fact that Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative, ran as part of a reform alliance. Reformers in Iran had all but given up after the fall of former President Mohammed Ali Khatami. But Ahmadi Nezhad has been a radically polarizing figure inside of Iran as well as abroad. The success of the reformers in the vote over the weekend comes as a direct result of Ahmadi Nezhad's radical course.
But the election was not a complete loss for Ahmadi Nezhad. His mentor, Ayatollah Mohammed Taghi Mesbah Yazdi -- perhaps the first open Islamist among Iranian religious leaders -- may have received significantly fewer votes than Rafsanjani. Nevertheless, he managed a respectable result.
For years Mesbah Yazdi has been injecting a radicalism into Iran's theological discourse that is unparalleled, even by the Islamic Republic's standards. He is even opposed to the "supremacy of the religious scholars." This model -- developed by the legendary revolutionary leader and founder of the republic Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini -- calls for a "revolutionary leader" from the ranks of the clergy. This leader, a position currently held by Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khameneh’i, outranks all constitutional entities, including the president.
Mesbah Yazdi, though, rejects the model -- because it accepts the existence of governmental bodies other than the supreme leader. God, so goes his thinking, is omniscient, but people are not. As a result, the right to vote gives the electorate the ability to violate God's will. The position is a radical one in Tehran. But there are other reasons why his popularity remains limited. His opposition to women visiting football stadiums surely didn't win over too many women voters in the Iranian capital.
The Assembly of Experts, often confused in the West with the Guardian Council, consists exclusively of religious scholars. In the 2005 election, it only approved the candidacies of eight out of more than 2,000 male and female candidates -- Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi was one of those excluded. Most members of the Assembly of Experts believe that women are not suited for high-ranking political office. Though it meets very rarely, the Assembly of Experts is an important instrument of power, especially when it comes to the internal squabbling within the conservative wing.
Aside from Rafsanjani's success, the elections over the weekend didn't much change the make-up of the Assembly of Experts. None of the camps -- Ahmadi Nezhad, Khameneh’i, Rafsanjani or the reformers -- managed to strengthen their positions. Nevertheless, the reformers and the pragmatic conservatives seem to have begun a comeback. Moreover, their new strategic alliance could help them secure new options for the future.
But the president has used his first 15 months in office to intensify his focus on small, remote cities that not even mid-ranking officials from Tehran would normally visit.
The results of the local elections could end up being more meaningful, at least when it comes to power politics. The numbers to have come out of Iran so far, though, are hardly reliable. Western observers have based their nationwide predictions so far on the results of Tehran's elections, a method that was still relatively reliable before Ahmadi Nezhad came to power.
But the president has used his first 15 months in office to intensify his focus on small, remote cities that not even mid-ranking officials from Tehran would normally visit. As a result, Ahmadi Nezhad reduced his dependency on the traditionally more liberal voters in Tehran, Iran's center of propaganda. It will take a more detailed analysis of the returns, which are not expected before the end of the week, to determine whether this strategy has paid off.
If countrywide elections end up not reflecting the Tehran results, Ahmadi Nezhad will have achieved his first major domestic political victory, and Tehran's role in influencing the outcome of elections will no longer be as decisive. Reformers and other opposition groups would be forced to take note. ENDS ELECTIONS 221206
Editor’s note: Herr Omid Nouripour, 31, is a German member of parliament who grew up in Iran and lives in Frankfurt and Berlin today. He was a member of the national leadership of the Green party between 2002 and 2006. He has represented the Greens in the Bundestag since September, 2006 when he took over the seat of former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. He is a member of the Europe committee and focuses on issues of intercultural dialogue.
The above article was posted by Spegel Online on 19 December 2006, translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
Highlights and some phonetisation of names are by IPS