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Divisions Simmer Behind Iranís Public Face

Author: Greg Bruno
February 1, 2008

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In his frequent statements on Iran’s regional ambitions, President Bush often paints in broad strokes. His most recent comments are no exception. “Wherever freedom advances in the Middle East,” the president said during his final State of the Union address on January 28, “it seems the Iranian regime is there to oppose it.” But criticism of Iranian foreign policy leaves aside the country’s internal political dynamics. And in that regard, the Iranian regime is highly complex.

As Iran closes in on March parliamentary elections, the political landscape of what the White House once termed its foremost foreign policy “challenge” is shifting. Iran’s reformists, backed by news of a stumbling economy, are gearing up for potential gains on hard-line conservatives after a drubbing in 2004. The Economist Intelligence Unit notes Iran’s inflation hovers around 19 percent and its annual gross domestic product is forecast to fall in coming years. The grim economic picture has raised doubts about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic policies and caused fissures inside conservative camps. The unease could factor in a potential reformist comeback (WSJ) in the 2009 presidential contest.

Even with the country’s growing economic woes, Iran’s reformist candidates are not expected to tip the balance of power in the Majlis, or parliament, on March 14. Over 7,200 candidates registered to run for its 290 seats, but many reformists have already been dumped (RFE/RL) by regional electoral boards, including politicians close to former reformist president Mohammad Khatami (NYT). Similar rejections played prominently in handing control of parliament to conservatives in the 2004 Majlis elections, when roughly 3,600 reformist candidates were disqualified (PDF). Seeking to avoid a repeat, Khatami has reportedly met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to discuss the dismissals (NRO), but some moderate politicians are still vowing to boycott the vote (LAT). Mehdi Khalaji, an expert in Iranian politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the fight over the electoral process is fast becoming “one of the country's most sensitive political issues.” 

What the political jockeying means for the Iranian public is debatable. Iran enjoys one of the Middle East’s most robust civil societies, due largely to the cultural and academic openness of Khatami’s tenure in the late 1990s. A crackdown on journalists and scholars by the current government has dampened the mood somewhat, but a January 2007 WorldPublicOpinion.org poll (PDF) suggests the majority of Iranians still perceive themselves as living in a country that respects human rights and democratic representation. A separate poll (PDF) conducted in June 2007 is less upbeat; it found widespread support for electoral reforms.  

Of course the ultimate arbiter of Iranian policy is the unelected supreme leader, a point CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr argues is often lost (WashPost) on U.S. policymakers. That means it might not matter much who assumes power in Iran’s hard-fought election battles. As Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution and CFR’s Ray Takeyh write in Newsweek, the next U.S. president will face an Iranian regime flush with oil money and indifferent to U.S. threats. Add to the mix a lack of credible intelligence on Iran’s military and political intentions, and dialogue between whoever assumes office—in either capital—may be the best bet for improved bilateral ties.

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