Last Friday, Iranians went to the polls to elect representatives to the country's legislature, or majles. The results of the poll have gone largely unremarked in the West. Yet, with deepening global tensions over Iran's nuclear program as backdrop, the outcome provides some important insights into the current political state of play in Tehran—and what we can expect from the Iranian regime in the days to come.
What's in a number?
Officially, the Iranian government has boasted of a turnout of more than 64 percent—and touted the figure as a rebuke to "enemies" (both domestic and foreign) that have sought to dishearten voters. But that number is deeply suspect; as some observers have noted, Iranian officials themselves let slip far more modest tallies, before correcting themselves and revising the numbers upward. Even if the figure is accurate, however, it falls below voter tallies in the 2009 presidential election, and well below the political participation that typified the country's political scene in the 1990s, when hopes ran high that the Iranian clerical set might take a more moderate turn.
The reasons the Iranian regime is eager to inflate the numbers are obvious. A high turnout allows Iran's Supreme Leader to more easily dismiss talk of internal dissent and disaffection, as well as to claim popular confidence in his stewardship. More significant still, in the official interpretation now being touted in Tehran, it provides political leeway for the Iranian regime to double down on its policy of confrontation with the West.
An internal struggle, resolved
The year-and-a-half preceding the election saw a pitched tug-of-war between two competing centers of domestic political power. On one side was Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and the clerical establishment—the traditional center of gravity within the Islamic Republic. On the other were Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his coterie, which—once supported by the ayatollahs—of late had grown increasingly antagonistic, competitive and insolent (so much so that they pejoratively have been labeled the "deviant current" in domestic parlance).
If there was ever any doubt about who would come out on top, however, they have now been put to rest. Khamenei loyalists are estimated to have capturing more than three-quarters of the 290 open parliamentary seats, in what amounts to a near-total rebuke of Ahmadinejad and his followers. In other words, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is still supreme, while Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—once a power-broker in his own right—is an increasingly irrelevant and marginal political player.
Opposition in disarray
In the run-up to elections, diverse political elements had pressed for certain concessions—like the release of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from longstanding house arrest—as a show of good faith. The regime's refusal to grant them, coupled with its blatant rigging of the candidate process, led the country's "reformist" political bloc to pledge an outright boycott of the impending electoral farce.
But that didn't happen; at least some of Iran's opposition elements ended up taking part in the voting process. Most conspicuously, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami—now an eminence grise of the "reformist" camp—broke ranks and pulled the lever on election day. That he did so bespeaks the malaise now plaguing Iran's various opposition factions, which remain disorganized and unable to mount a serious challenge to Iran's entrenched conservatives.None of this, of course, is good news for the West. With Iran's clerical elite once again consolidated and firmly in control of the regime's levers of power, there is little hope that internal divisions might generate meaningful fissures within the Islamic Republic—or somehow help alter its political trajectory. At the same time, the sorry state of Iran's opposition indicates just how successful the regime has been in neutering opposition forces since they broke into the open in the summer of 2009. Iran's parliamentary results, then, amount to a resounding confirmation of the domestic political status quo, as well as a mandate for the Iranian regime to continue its current, destructive foreign policy course.