It was not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s finest hour. For years he was described as the protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but now the 56-year-old president has been cast out by Iran’s most powerful man. Most of his supporters running for the country’s legislative elections have been trounced. They were defeated by relatively unknown ultra-conservative politicians loyal to Khamenei. Even Ahmadinejad’s sister was among the losers. Khamenei’s loyalists claimed more than 75 per cent of the 290-seat Majlis or parliament.
This was the first election to be held in Iran since the disputed 2009 presidential vote, which Ahmadinejad won, and which resulted in mass street protests. But this time the reformists, like other opposition leaders before them, were banned from participating. Their supporters called for a nation-wide boycott. It was a battle solely among Iranian conservatives of different perceptions. The result means that Ahmadinejad will finish his term, which ends next year, as a lame duck president. But what is more important is that Khamenei can now turn Iran into a full-fledged theocracy with undisputed clerical powers vested in him under Willayat Al Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist).
Few people associate the Islamic Republic with democratic rule. But in fact Iran has maintained a sophisticated structure of democratic institutions since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, including an elected President, Parliament, a Guardian Council and an Assembly of Experts which elects and dismisses the Supreme Leader. On the other hand, Iran’s has been a diminishing democracy with most opposition leaders now in jail or worse and reformists within the official structure under house arrest and banned from public office.
The rise and fall of one of Iran’s most moderate and reformist presidents, Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005, opened the path for Ahmadinejad’s confrontational presidency. And when he was challenged by reformist presidential candidates Mir Hussain Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi in 2009, it is widely believed that the government had rigged election results in his favour.
Since then Iranian democracy took a nosedive. The government has been repeatedly condemned by international agencies for its human rights and press freedom violations. The fallout between Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader is not easy to understand. But the president has come under increased pressure from parliament for his failed economic policies and allegations of corruption. His abuse of power, as seen by conservative deputies, is believed to have changed Khamenei’s position from Ahmadinejad. The Supreme Leader has backed parliamentary efforts to investigate the president for corruption and has intervened to overrule some of his key appointments and dismissals.
Latest election results have underlined the extent of Ahmadinejad’s isolation and his estrangement from the Supreme Leader. This will unlikely affect progress with Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, which both men support, or its regional politics in relation to Syria, Iraq or the Gulf region. Khamenei’s hostility towards America, Israel and the West in general is only matched by that of the president.
The net outcome of the latest elections is simple; Iran’s theocratic nature will become more pronounced. Khamenei, 73, will follow the same hard line politics both internally and externally. And with a conservative parliament that is loyal to him he will have the ultimate say on the identity of the next Iranian president in 2013.
But it will not be a smooth sailing for the Supreme Leader and his conservative parliament. Domestically, a more religious parliament will have to face growing discontent among the republic’s 78 million inhabitants over many issues including human rights, freedom of expression, women’s rights, economic reforms, unemployment among the young, official corruption and many others. Western economic and oil embargoes will only make life tougher for millions of families who survive on government handouts in a country that is suffering from gasoline and food shortages in addition to collapsing national currency.
There is also the reformist movement within the existing structure, which while it is prevented from participating in public life, still carries influence with millions of Iranians who are fed up with the interference of clerics in political, economic and social life.
Externally Iran’s nuclear programme will continue to invite international sanctions and threats of a military strike by Israel. Relations with its Gulf neighbours are tense and the latest elections will only make Iran more introverted and isolated as the Supreme Leader gets more involved in his country’s foreign policy.
Not since 1979 and the long war with Iraq did the Islamic Republic face such existential challenges. No one will miss the neurotic rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad or his confrontational politics — he will still be around on the foreign policy front — but the region should feel a bit more insecure as clerics gain more power and influence in Iran, whose fledgling democracy is now in a free fall.
Furthermore, we will witness an ardent revival of Shiite ideologies under the Guardianship of the Jurist in Iran that coincides with a Sunni response in the Arab world, especially in the newly free Arab countries. Such a state of affairs will determine the region’s course in the coming few years.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.