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Iran's Parliamentary Vote: The Beginning of the End of Ahmadinejad

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Last Friday, Iran held its first elections since the controversial 2009 presidential contest, after which millions of voters poured into streets of Tehran. Unrest following the announced re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad culminated in mass detention, torture and the death of many protesters. It also led to the near-elimination of pro-reform political forces in the Islamic Republic. For this very reason, the parliamentary vote last week should be viewed as an unrepresentative sham -- nothing more than a selection process amongst the ruling conservative elite.

As the dispute between Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad runs deeper, this election is widely interpreted as a battle between these two political heavyweights. With the ballot boxes now counted, the outcome categorically declares Khamenei as the winner -- as was broadly anticipated. But placing Iran's future policy trajectory in its proper context requires caution against reaching hasty conclusions. The results clearly show that candidates openly associated with Ahmadinejad and his chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie failed to enter the parliament. However, the Islamic Revolution Durability Front, backed by ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi and fairly close to Ahmadinejad, performed relatively well, thereby lessening the possibility of a solid opposition to the president emerging in the new parliament.

A cursory glance at the election results shows that three main conservative factions triumphed: the United Fundamentalist Front, a coalition of traditional conservatives backed by Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani; the aforementioned Durability Front; and the Resistance Front, composed of moderate conservatives supported by former IRGC chief commander and ex-presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaie. However, a closer look at the outcome reveals few candidates from Rezaei's list winning seats; the already-marginalized reformist bloc further shrinking in parliament; and the number of moderate conservative and independent lawmakers dwindling to new lows. In direct contrast, the two prominent conservative factions -- backed by Khamenei and Mesbah Yazdi, respectively -- captured approximately 70% of the seats. Given that the Durability Front either had no representatives in many small towns or shared its representatives with the United Coalition Front, the latter emerged victorious throughout rural Iran. But in bigger cities, the balance of power between these two prominent factions remains intact. In Tehran -- where candidate lists from these two factions have the least amount of overlap, due to the highly politicized atmosphere of the capital -- three out of five candidates who secured seats were on both lists. The same pattern applies to those candidates who will be competing for the remaining 25 seats in a runoff election in the coming weeks.

This runoff vote must be concluded before a concrete picture of the new parliaments' composition emerges. Nevertheless, factional orientations of those candidates who managed to secure their seats in the first round of voting have clarified the makeup of the next parliament to a considerable extent.

The future of Iran's parliament is of greater significance to Khamenei than Ahmadinejad, whose second term will end in 2013. The state-propagated monolithic image of the conservative camp is misleading, and the root cause of factional infighting amongst conservatives is less ideological and more a struggle for political and economic power. Maintaining the balance of power between the two main conservative factions -- and keeping them well short of a majority in parliament -- has created a feeble legislature that does not pose a risk to Khamenei's dominance of the system.

To that end, one key development demonstrates the regime's attempts to emasculate the parliament: almost a third of the sitting parliamentarians, both conservatives and reformists, failed to secure seats -- many of whom were among the 79 signatories to a motion calling Ahmadinejad to parliament for questioning. Although a number of current lawmakers will be taking part in the runoff election, the new parliament will include many new faces, which may exacerbate its weakness for at least its first two years in session. Eliminating a large number of Ahmadinejad's critics further confirms that Khamenei prefers to avoid issues that may have a destabilizing effect on the system, such as impeachment of the president.

For the very same reason, Khamenei has publicly floated the idea of abolishing the post of a directly elected president, and shifting to a parliamentary system with the prime minister appointed by parliament. Should Khamenei decide to proceed accordingly, the political makeup of the new parliament thus far suits such a purpose, regardless of the factional-orientation of its speaker. The current speaker Ali Larjinai, an influential conservative politician and a former chief nuclear negotiator; Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, a former Majles speaker and father-in-law to Khamenei's son; and Morteza Agha-Tehrani, Ayatollah Mesbah's disciple and close to Ahmadinejad, enjoy the highest chance of obtaining the leadership post. Most importantly, none of them would pose a challenge to the Supreme Leader's decision-making authority.

If the system decides to retain the presidency, the outcome of the parliamentary election provides little opportunity for Ahmadinejad and his controversial confidant Mashaie, but does provide political opportunity to moderate conservative forces such as Ali Motahari, who managed to muster enough support in the parliamentary vote to go into a runoff despite being abandoned by the main conservative coalitions.

Within this larger trend of power consolidation by Khamenei, what happens next is largely his choice and very difficult to predict. But this parliamentary vote has made it clear that the parliament has become an unlikely source of defiance vis-a-vis the Supreme Leader.

Angie Ahmadi is an Associate at the National Iranian American Council.