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Iran invokes west to motivate voters

Published: March 1, 2012 | 8:19 am
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WASHINGTON: In the days leading up to Iran’s parliamentary elections on Friday, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other top officials have been crisscrossing their country to issue stern warnings against a vast Western conspiracy, driven by panic, to undermine the vote. The official news media have amplified the campaign: “US Dreads Iranians’ Turnout in Elections,” read one typical banner on Press TV, the state-run English-language vehicle.

That may come as a surprise outside Iran, where the elections are widely ignored, or dismissed as a contest among an ever-narrower circle of archconservatives. But this is no ordinary election. It is the first one to take place since the presidential election of 2009, which set off widespread accusations of fraud, vast street protests and a bloody crackdown lasting months that effectively eviscerated any viable opposition.

Now the Iranian authorities – who have long promoted voter turnout as an index of their government’s democratic legitimacy – must lure people back to the polls. It will not be easy: the leaders of the opposition movement have been placed under house arrest or jailed, along with hundreds of their leading supporters. The newspapers and other media organs that were allied with them have been shut down or silenced; more than three dozen prominent reporters have been jailed. The ideological spectrum of those running for Iran’s weak 290-member Parliament, known as the Majles, runs “from pitch black to dark gray,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Even among many ordinary people without clear political affiliations, faith in the power of voting appears to have suffered badly, many analysts say.

So far, the authorities have tried to get out the vote in familiar jingoistic ways, portraying themselves as under siege by an arrogant West. War veterans are trotted out to urge voters to go to the polls, and the intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, has warned about insidious plots to keep people from voting. “A vibrant election will give the enemy a strong punch in the mouth,” Ayatollah Khamenei said Wednesday at a gathering in northwestern Iran, according to the state-run Mehr News Agency.

A high turnout may be especially important now, in light of Iran’s darkening economic prospects and increasingly fragmented political scene. New sanctions imposed this year by the United States and Europe have had unprecedented effects on Iran’s private sector and middle class. And Ayatollah Khamenei appears to be increasingly unpopular, with some conservatives breaking a taboo by criticizing him openly.

At the same time, most analysts say the government will report a turnout of 60 percent or higher, regardless of what happens on Friday. Unlike in 2009, protests are unlikely even if there are clear indications of fraud, because expectations are so low, said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. Nor is a high turnout a clear sign of support for the state: Many Iranians will vote to avoid getting into trouble, because their national ID cards are stamped at the polls.

If there is any drama in the election, it has to do with the bitter conflict between two groups of conservatives: allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a hard-line faction of clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders claiming to back Ayatollah Khamenei. Although no one in Iran’s political class dares to challenge Ayatollah Khamenei openly, the president has successfully elevated the power of his office since he was first elected in 2005, and hopes to maintain his influence through allies in Parliament even after his second term ends in 2013. Those ambitions have bred tensions with Ayatollah Khamenei, who has final authority in Iran’s government, and the two men had an unusual public spat last May. Mr. Ahmadinejad and his allies, including his controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have raised large amounts of money through the privatization of state industries since 2005, and some analysts say they could use that money to help elect their favored candidates, or even bring new Parliament members to their side after the election.

“Ahmadinejad wants to take control of the Parliament for two main reasons,” said Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California who writes for the Web site Tehran Bureau. “He wants to prevent his rivals in Parliament from impeaching him – as they’ve been threatening for a long time – and he wants, through Parliament, to influence the presidential election of 2013.”

Some of the hard-liners who oppose Mr. Ahmadinejad even say they fear he will manipulate the vote through the Interior Ministry, which supervises the election, echoing the anxieties of the reformist camp prior to the 2009 presidential vote. The president’s supporters dismiss those accusations, but often complain in parallel form about a harsh campaign that demonizes them as an anti-Islamic “deviant current.”

One of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s closest aides, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, lashed out at the president’s parliamentary rivals during an interview in Tehran last month, saying that the president’s allies would crush them in the polls and that “we have many bad documents that implicate them, and we will make those documents public if necessary.” That kind of threat has become familiar in recent months, and it is not clear how much weight it carries. Mr. Javanfekr’s own fate illustrates the bitterness of the intra-conservative political battle: he was briefly arrested and handcuffed in his office during a humiliating raid in November, and last month was sentenced to six months in prison for writings that were deemed insulting to the supreme leader.

So far, Mr. Ahmadinejad appears to have benefited from persistent schisms among the conservative forces arrayed against him. But many analysts doubt that he will succeed in gaining greater power over Parliament, where his rivals outnumber his supporters by a healthy margin. Despite an unusual spate of public criticisms of Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader still wields tremendous power. “I don’t see anyone who’s close to really challenging Khamenei’s authority,” Mr. Sadjadpour said.

Another possible outcome of the election is a decrease in parliamentary support for Mr. Ahmadinejad. That could pave the way for the elimination of the presidency, analysts say – something Ayatollah Khamenei hinted at last year.

“If the supreme leader ends up with a Parliament full of subservient yes-men, the only obstacle left for him is the office of the president, and he may go ahead and eliminate it,” Professor Boroujerdi said.

It is unlikely that this struggle among conservatives will have much bearing on issues relevant to the West like Iran’s nuclear program, which is championed across the board in Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad is widely said to want a settlement with the West that would ease Iran’s economic isolation. But as a lame-duck president, he can hardly hope to control such an important decision, even if his allies win a dominant position in Parliament.

©2011 The New York Times News Service

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