Iran Electoral Power Play Shows How Fragile Regime Actually Is

Iran's fragile and fractious clerical regime has resorted to manipulating the country's electoral process.

By + More
An unidentified lawmaker kisses the hand of head of the Guardian Council Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, as director of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei's office, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gulpaigani, second right, talks with a lawmaker after the inauguration ceremony for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in parliament in Tehran, Iran on Saturday Aug. 6, 2005. Ahmadinejad declared his foreign policy would focus on good relations with the rest of the world. Shortly after his inauguration, the foreign ministry rejected Europe's proposal for ending the deeply divisive standoff over Tehran's controversial nuclear program, calling it "unacceptable" and not up to Iran's "minimum expectations."

Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.  

Iran's presidential election may still be some four months away, but the political machinations have already begun. Last week, Iran's Council of Guardians, the powerful governmental oversight body tasked with interpreting the country's constitution, passed a new law imposing additional curbs on the electoral process within the Islamic Republic—and adding a new layer of bureaucracy to its already-convoluted political process.

Under the new regulation, elections will henceforth be run by an 11 member central board made up of representatives of Iran's judiciary, legislative, and executive branches, together with a group of "national, political, social and cultural" figures. The body will take over from the Interior Ministry in having lead responsibility for organizing and overseeing the country's polls.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

The move is more than merely bureaucratic. It reflects a power play by Iran's clerical elite, which is worried that president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his followers might meddle in the outcome of the country's impending presidential contest this June. The changes were made because of the belief that "Ahmadinejad and his team could try to interfere in the election and influence the results," one Iranian journalist interviewed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty confirms.

There is good reason to think they might. Recent months have seen a pitched ideological tug-of-war within Iran. The struggle has not been between the regime and the "Green Movement" that coalesced following the controversial presidential election that took place in the summer of 2009. After two-and-a-half years of regime repression and inattention from the West, Iran's pro-democracy forces have been mostly sidelined.

Rather, the dominant political contest in Iran of late has been within the country's conservative camp itself, where the traditional clerical elite led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has clashed with Ahmadinejad and his followers over a range of social and political issues. So acrimonious has this struggle become that the latter have pejoratively been labeled the "deviant current," and calls for its members to be expunged from national politics have become commonplace.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Was John McCain's Ahmadinejad Monkey Tweet Racist?]

That goal has largely been accomplished. In Iran's parliamentary elections last March, Ahmadinejad's followers were ousted in a resounding political victory for Khamenei and his camp. And Ahmadinejad himself is now mostly a spent force; constitutionally barred from seeking a third term in office, Iran's deeply unpopular president is finishing out the last few months of his tenure without serious prospects for a future in national politics.

Nevertheless, Iran's ayatollahs are not leaving anything to chance, and are seeking to preserve the country's political status quo ahead of what is sure to be a tense referendum on their stewardship in the face of Western sanctions and mounting domestic malaise. That they have resorted to manipulating the country's electoral process to do so is a telling indicator of just how fractious, and how fragile, Iran's clerical regime really is.

  • Read Scherezade Rehman: Will Mali Become France's Afghanistan?
  • Read Lamont Colucci: President Obama's Shifting Red Line on Syria
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.