Many people have asked me, in the wake of my recent trip to Iran, "do last week's elections really matter?" Today, as the results pour in, they've begun asking "how are the results considered a setback for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad?" They're both good questions, questions more Americans should be asking.
Last week Iranians voted in municipal, or city, elections, much like we vote for mayor and city council. Iranians also voted for a more obscure but powerful body known as the Assembly of Experts. Municipal elections in Iran, as in other countries, are seen as a first step towards great political office, Tehran being a particularly juicy prize--as Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was mayor there before he became president of Iran. The current elections saw a coalition of reformists and old-line conservatives take on Ahmedinejad's hardline faction, campaigning on the most basic of all political issues: the economy, jobs and traffic. (The traffic in Tehran makes Los Angeles traffic look like a desert highway in Arizona at midnight.)
The elections for the Assembly of Experts, albeit a bit more obscure assembly in an already largely opaque political system, are even more significant, for it is the AoE that chooses the successor to Iran's Supreme Leader, whose word is law in Iran. And the current Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamanei, is very ill and I have heard he's dying of cancer. Thus, adding urgency to elections that usually are not seen as critical.
In virtually every venue the results of the elections saw unusually high voter turnout as Ahmedinejad's hardline faction failed to gain many seats at all. In the municipal elections his faction witnessed defeat in a host of cities, including Kerman, Sari, Zanjan, Ahvaz (in the oil rich province of Khuzestan) and Bandar Abbas. As a sign of how poorly Ahmedinejad and his faction did in Tehran, considered a stronghold of his, Parvin Ahmedinejad, his sister, failed in her bid for the municipal council of Tehran. Moreoever, the current Tehrani mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf will retain his seat, continue agitating against Ahmedinejad and increase the pressure on his anti-corruption drive.
It is in the Assembly of Experts, however, that Ahmedinejad's faction took a drubbing. Even though Ahmedinejad's mentor, the Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, did manage to gain a seat on the Assembly of Experts Iranians of all stripes clearly showed they don't trust Ahmedinejad and his faction to determine the next Supreme Leader. 65 of the 86 seats up for vote in the Assembly of Experts went to the Reformist-Conservative faction, which opposes Ahmedinejad's new hardliners. The real winner here is former Iranian president Rafsanjani who has called for an opening with the US and is largely seen as a pragmatist, although former president Khatami and the reformist movement he symbolizes has shown it still has the power to capture the youth's imagination.
What does all this mean? It may not mean much in the short-term, as Ahmedinejad is widely seen in Iran as a Bush-like figure: hot tempered, arrogant, arbitrary and inexperienced in the realm of international affairs. But long term, especially when the next Supreme Leader is chosen in Iran, this election will reverberate.
In the long-term the news is good, but we might not make it that far: as it seems the United States is in danger of making another rash decision. While the White House is busy silencing critics again, an alarming buildup of naval forces in and around the Persian Gulf continues "in response to what the US considers 'increasingly provocative acts.'" Some experts believe that an attack on Iran by an enfeebled, increasingly isolated and irrelevant president Bush is more than just a 50/50 proposition. If so our situation in Iraq will go from bad to horrific overnight and the recent elections in Iran won't matter at all.