Monday, December 18, 2006

Iran’s election likely to bring rethink at top

Iran’s election likely to bring rethink at top

By Gareth Smyth in Tehran

Published: December 18 2006 18:39 | Last updated: December 18 2006 18:39

Just 18 months after the landslide election of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad of Iran, the bloody nose delivered to his government at the weekend suggests Iranian politics is entering a new and volatile stage in which voters deliver swift verdicts on their leaders.

“Of course the results are a strong message for the president, just as mid-term elections in the US were for [George W.] Bush,” said a former senior official. “It’s a sign that changes need to be made and that radical policies should be revised in fav­our of greater pragmatism.”

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad stormed to the presidency promising a fairer distribution of oil wealth to poorer Iranians, crushing Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pillar of Iranian politics since the 1979 revolution.

Yet on Friday moderate conservatives including allies of Mr Rafsanjani fared well in elections for local government and for the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses and supervises the country’s supreme leader.

Mr Rafsanjani easily topped the assembly poll in Tehran, which elects 16 members of the 86-seat body, while fundamentalist clerics sympathetic to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad won fewer than 10 seats nationwide. In local elections, the vast majority of seats were taken by reformists, moderate conservatives, independents and fundamentalists critical of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.

The results indicate that an unpredictable phase in Iranian politics is opening, just as international pressure mounts, with the United Nations Security Council set to impose sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Mr Rafsanjani’s position is likely to be enhanced within the informal group of top officials under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, that makes policy on vital international and security issues, but the extent to which that will influence Tehran’s position on crucial issues is hard to gauge.

“Mr Ahmadi-Nejad will no longer be speaking for ‘the people’ in the leadership group, and Mr Rafsanjani will be stronger – although it will take time for this to become evident,” said a close Rafsanjani ally.

Mr Rafsanjani has criticised Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s handling of the nuclear issue, but immediate options for a more pragmatic approach are limited by Iran’s impasse with the European Union following the failure of talks in the summer.

For Iran’s reformists the election results present an opportunity to use local government, especially in the big cities, to shed their past image of being overly concerned with social and political “freedom” rather than day-to-day issues.

Reformists also suggested that unease over the international situation and its consequences, especially for private business, had turned many voters against Mr Ahmadi-Nejad. “There is going to be a rethink at the top, and this is the real importance of the election,” said Mostafa Tajzadeh, a leading official in the reformist party Mosharekat.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s decision to run his own Pleasant Scent of Service list independent of other conservatives has been seen as illustrating a general failure to build political bridges – even to fellow fundamentalists – that has alienated many former allies.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has attempted to distance himself from the list’s relatively poor performance, claiming that only the “foreign media” saw the poll as a test of his government.

Nonetheless, doubts remain about whether Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is temperamentally capable of moderating his policies. “I don’t think it’s in his personality to change course,” said Nasser Hadian, politics professor at Tehran University and friend of the president.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

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