Iran's Elections and the Nuclear Standoff

By Matthew Duss

The outcome of Iran's recent parliamentary elections—the ninth since the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1978—appears to be triumph for the ultraconservative supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His coalition of supporters captured more than 75 percent of the seats in the National Consultative Assembly, or Majlis. Of course with the sidelining of reformist elements within Iran in the wake of the June 2009 elections and the subsequent crackdown on reformist dissent within the country, the elections this past week were essentially a competition between conservative and ultraconservative factions jockeying for position under the supreme leader.

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Iranian state TV reported that the United Principlist Front and the Stability Front together secured about three-quarters of the seats. The United Principlist Front was established in response to Khamenei's call for unity among his supporters in the wake of the 2009 protests and is led by conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, secretary general of the Militant Clergy Association. The Stability Front is led by hardline cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a former spiritual adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has now withdrawn his support of the president.

Ahmadinejad has come under intense criticism over the past year for his efforts to expand the powers of the presidency. Even more threatening to his political career are accusations by many clerics of promoting a 'deviant' strain of Islam that features elements of populism and nationalism. The defeat of many candidates affiliated with Ahmadinejad is an embarrassing rebuke to the president by his former political patron, the supreme leader.

Indeed, Ahmadinejad's own sister even failed to win a seat in their hometown of Garmsar, southeast of Tehran. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that 'Parvin Ahmadinejad has said that she will protest against voting 'irregularities.'' Reformist candidates associated with Iran's pro-democracy Green movement, which brought millions of Iranians into the streets in rejection of the results of the June 2009 presidential elections, could not even get their names on the ballot.

The reformists announced their decision to boycott the elections weeks ago, both as a gesture of protest and in anticipation of being prohibited from running by the Guardian Council, one of two official bodies, along with the Interior Ministry, responsible for vetting candidates. This year the Guardian Council barred 35 sitting MPs from seeking reelection and blocked nearly 2,000 other applicants from running. Leading Green movement figures Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both reformist candidates in 2009, have been under house arrest for more than a year.

Facing considerable internal tensions and growing popular discontent resulting from increasing international economic and financial sanctions because of Iran's continued nuclear program, Iran's leaders were clearly desperate to present the elections as an affirmation of the regime's flagging legitimacy, and a rebuttal to international criticism and pressure over its controversial nuclear program. Iranian state television quoted Khamenei as declaring a religious obligation to vote, saying that a high voter turnout would 'safeguard' Iran's reputation. Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi similarly stated that a large turnout would 'deal a heavy blow to the mouth' of Iran's foes.

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Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress and Director of the Center’s Middle East Progress project.

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