03/01/2012 02:20 pm ET Updated May 01, 2012

The Politics of Iran's Parliamentary Elections

Co-authored by Angie Ahmadi

For several weeks now, Iran's parliamentary elections have been dismissed by many as an unimportant, farcical show by the regime. To be sure, these elections are all but guaranteed to be neither free nor fair. With Iran's most popular politicians either behind bars, purged from the system or forced into exile, the upcoming vote is less an election and more a game of elite competition between the Islamic Republic's warring conservative factions.

Now more than ever before, elections in the Islamic Republic serve as little more than a mechanism through which evolving power relationships among political factions are regulated and recalibrated -- certainly a trend worth tracking. Despite a concerted effort to bridge the ideological range of candidates participating in the election, the vote has instead become a battle between conservative factions for political and economic power in Iran.

Loyalty to Supreme Leader Khamenei is currently the linchpin of the regime. However, the level of loyalty and support for Khamenei varies among different factions functioning within a broader conservative camp. The case of incumbent conservative parliamentarian Ali Motahari epitomizes the regime's willingness to marginalize any voice critical of Khamenei's growing institutional influence. As the son of Ayatollah Morteza Motahari (an influential Khomeini confident during the 1979 revolution) and brother-in-law of Parliamentary Speak Ali Larijani, Ali Motahari personifies Iran's well-connected conservative elite. Nevertheless, his robust patronage network failed to protect him from being abandoned by the main conservative coalitions after he openly criticized Khamenei's rule.

To that end, as the Supreme Leader tries to cement his consolidation of power, determining the future political make-up of the Islamic Republic is critical to understanding its future policy trajectory.

Looking back, many policymakers and pundits have long predicted a consolidation of the conservative faction in Iran, and the upcoming parliamentary vote is latest example that proves the notion incorrect. The running Khamenei-Ahmadinejad divide personifies a larger truth: Iranian conservatives are as varied and divided as the reformists were during former President Mohammad Khatami's tenure. And given the various power networks in the Islamic Republic - clerics, technocrats, merchants, the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps- the consolidation of power in the hands of a single faction has thus far proven unachievable.

Despite submerged rifts among conservatives, they worked together to marginalize the reformists from 2005-2009. With no reformist scapegoats left to target, conservative factions have spent the past three years openly fighting one another. Having seen what happened to the reformists, it is clear to the various conservative factions vying for power this is about political survival and controlling the future of the Islamic Republic.

Ayatollah Khamenei sought to avoid this scenario. As is common before most Iranian elections, his loyalists launched a political process that was designed to unify conservative factions under the auspices of single candidate list that would participate across the country. Negotiations over which candidates would run in various cities dragged on for months, and ultimately the various players were unable to agree on the modalities of what and whom a unified list should consist of. In the end, various factions ended up offering their own lists -- some of which overlap -- leaving the myriad political rifts unhealed. Of the key factions competing in the elections, two stand out.

Mainstream conservative figures and parties playing various key roles since the 1979 revolution have come together under the banner of the United Principlist Front. This includes prominent members of the Motalefeh Party (the political wing of Iran's bazaar); the Islamic Society of Engineers (Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, Mohammad Reza Bahonar); former Speaker of the Parliament (and Father-in-law of the Supreme Leader's son, Mojtaba Khamenei) Gholam Ali Haddad Adel; and a host of Iranian neoconservatives linked to the IRGC, such as former Petroleum Minister Masoud Mirkazemi and sitting parliamentarian Esmail Kowsari. Under the ostensible leadership of regime stalwarts Ayatollahs Mohammad Yazdi and Mohammad Reza Mahadavi Kani, this IRGC-heavy faction is looking to cement its control over a parliament in which it already holds a majority of seats. With a defining discourse of loyalty to Khamenei, criticism of Ahmadinejad, and close relations to current Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, this faction is the frontrunner.

The most formidable competitor facing the United Principlist Front is the Ahmadinejad-backed Islamic Republic Durability Front. The ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi leads this mix of hardline candidates. Prominent figures include members of Ahmadinejad's cabinet and his allies in parliament, such as Morteza Agha Tehrani, Ruhollah Hosseinian, Gholam Hossein Elham and Kamran Baqeri Lankarani. Professed loyalty to the Supreme Leader and the President has been a defining characteristic of this faction, but the rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei -- along with rumors that the Durability Front secretly supports the controversial Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, despite public proclamations to the contrary -- has made Khamenei more reliant on rival factions in recent years in an effort to keep the president in check. Despite this, the divide between these two factions is not clear-cut, as their candidate lists share a notable number of prominent figures, including Haddad Adel, Mirkazemi and Kowsari.

Should Ayatollah Khamenei decide to use the vote as an opportunity to reshuffle the Islamic Republic's political boundaries and marginalize Ahmadinejad's camp in the parliament, the president may try to counter by utilizing his control of the Interior Ministry and its resources. While the Guardian Council has already disqualified many Ahmadinejad-backed candidates in larger cities, his allies still have a solid chance to win seats in smaller provincial cities where the vote is less politicized and more focused on economic concerns. Backroom politicking is possible to avoid such a standoff, but any deal would be struck at the eleventh hour, as no signs currently point to compromise.

The internal opposition to Ahmadinejad's faction demonstrates that the various actors within Iran's political elite support different ideas, tactics and strategies. As the system has absorbed repeated challenges from Ahmadinejad, it also positioned itself to contain his camp, much in the same way as it contained former President Khatami: gradually whittling away his authority, and passing that authority to rival factions and institutions. To that end, Khamenei has played his usual game of patience with the aim of empowering himself at the end. These parliamentary elections will be perhaps the strongest indication to-date on the degree to which Khamenei has successfully consolidated all levers of power directly under his control.

A key indicator going forward is who controls the leadership post in the parliament. The current speaker, Ali Larijani, is a Khamenei loyalist, but his retention of the post will likely depend on both his showing in the polls and Khamenei's political calculations regarding his preferred function of the parliament as a political tool that he can control and wield.

Given the divisive nature of Iran's politics, it is within the realm of possibility that a more fractured parliament emerges. However, if Khamenei decides to unleash another round of political fratricide that is anything close to what occurred in 2009, the parliament has the potential to unify the remaining conservative factions under his leadership. In this latter scenario, the parliament's policymaking mandate would largely be confined to the economy, while Khamenei would remain at the helm of domestic and foreign policy decision-making.

Looking ahead, an important political ramification of the forthcoming vote is political positioning for presidential elections in 2013. With Ahmadinejad approaching the end of his second term, competing conservative factions have sought to use the parliamentary elections to lay the groundwork for their countrywide presidential campaigns -- particularly in Iran's provinces, where Ahmadinejad's faction has long courted voters with promises of economic relief and infrastructure development. If a large-scale purge of Ahmadinejad allies from the parliament takes place, it would be perhaps the strongest indicator yet of moves by Khamenei to do away with the post of a directly elected president.

In this election, with the reformists purged from the system, regime insiders have narrowed their debate to an intra-conservative argument over pragmatism and ideology -- all within the narrow confines of the system, and with the primary goal of regime survival. To that end, insiders are bound by layers of political, military, business and family ties, and a shared commitment to preserving the system -- and they remain the only game in town. Within Iran, widespread popular dissatisfaction has not evolved into organized opposition, and there is no organized challenge to the system -- the regime's monopoly on violence has thus far prevented such a challenge from emerging. As a result, Iranians have thus far found no meaningful way to affect the power structure and have been relegated to being bystanders to the Islamic Republic's evolving political dynamics. As parliamentary elections come and go, this remains the most likely political equilibrium in the offing.

Reza Marashi is Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council. Angie Ahmadi is an Associate at the National Iranian American Council.