If the heated rhetoric from U.S. Republican candidates is any indication, Iran will feature prominently in the upcoming presidential elections. While Republican saber rattling is ringing a familiar tone, Iran's March parliamentary elections may give U.S. hawks the leverage they need to pose a formidable challenge to Obama's foreign policy.
Candidates for Iran's parliament, the Majles, have to register and be vetted by the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council, a twelve member body, is constitutionally mandated to judge the suitability of each candidate. With six members appointed by the supreme leader and the other half nominated by the judiciary and approved by the Majles, the Council tends toward conservatism. Through its systematic repression of reformist candidates, the Guardian Council may very well substantiate Republican rhetoric.
In 2008, the Guardian Council rejected over one-thousand reformist registrations, approving only 130 candidates to appear on the ballots in roughly 37 percent of districts. The calculation was undoubtedly intentional. Even if all of the reformist candidates approved had won their seats, they would have been given control of a minority of the parliament.
Reformist leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi are still under House Arrest after Iran's 2009 disputed presidential elections and are calling on reformist candidates to boycott the 2012 parliamentary elections and for voters to stay away from the polls. The registration period for the 2012 parliamentary elections ended on December 30, and although the final list has not been released, only a few reformists have registered. Those reformist registrants fortunate enough to pass through the Guardian Council will pale in comparison to the number of conservative candidates.
As a result, the election is shaping up to be a battle between conservatives loyal to Supreme Leader Khamenei and those loyal to sitting President Ahmadinejad. More than likely the Majles will become even more conservative, and any hope for strong moderate voices in the Iranian Parliament will be slim. Conservatives will inevitably overwhelm voter ballots and the current abysmal perception of Iranian legitimacy in the U.S. will further deteriorate. By no means has the sovereignty of Iran been well respected up until now, but one of the best soapboxes U.S. hawks could hope for is the depletion of Iranian legitimacy. By silencing reformist candidates, Tehran's leadership is doing the country a disservice. The biggest threat to Iranian sovereignty isn't domestic dissent, but government repression. Oh, and the U.S.
Obama's foreign policy track record has been fairly sound, with a Pew Research poll released last week suggesting solid approval ratings on foreign policy and his management of the threat of terrorism at 44 percent and 65 percent, respectively. But Republicans and Americans at large see Iran as one of Obama's weaknesses. It is difficult to predict whether we will see a resurgence of the kind of domestic protests that sparked in Iran after the 2009 presidential election, but any fall-out from the 2012 Iranian Parliamentary elections will give Republicans an opportunity to pounce.
U.S. Republican presidential candidates are going to play to the idea that potentially secular and democratic voices are being suppressed by a tyrannical regime in Tehran and Obama is not lifting a finger. There are going to be calls in the U.S. to "support the Green Movement," and or "regime change" in Iran.
A more conservative Iranian parliament in and of itself doesn't have the power to change much. The Majles is constrained by the Supreme Leader, the president, and the Guardian Council. Regardless of the fact that a more conservative Iranian parliament will have a negligible effect on policy, U.S. republican candidates will use the repression of reformists as a platform to attack Obama. Despite the fact that it was during Green Movement leader Khatami's presidency that Iran was added to the Axis of Evil, often times substance is not the bread and butter of campaigning.
Looking forward to March, Obama is going to be under pressure. The hawks won't have to delegitimize the Iranian government -- Tehran is doing a good job all on its own. Impressively, U.S.-Iran rhetoric has been even more damning than usual. If the upcoming Iranian elections succeed in marginalizing moderate candidates, the Guardian Council is going to inadvertently strengthen war-mongering voices around the world, but especially in the U.S.