THE European Union dismissed last Friday's Iranian parliamentary
election as a farce, while the United States described it as a
travesty. Yet, whatever it might have seemed in Western eyes, the vote
provided a crucial insight into the balance of power in the Tehran
Islamic Republic elections resemble American
party primaries. Voters choose among preselected candidates vetted and
approved by the authorities. The system is based on the principle that,
because all candidates are loyal to the "Supreme Guide" and sworn to
obeying him, it makes no difference which ones win. In practice,
however, the choices offered by the regime - and those made by the
electorate - can and at times do make a difference.
choices offered by the regime indicate its current needs and anxieties.
In the regime's early years, in 1980 and 1984, the choices offered
reflected its need to consolidate itself around a hard core of mullahs.
In the elections that followed the 1988 end of the Iran-Iraq war, the
regime tried to attract the middle classes by fielding some academics
and businessmen as candidates along with the inevitable mullahs. The
trend continued in the 1990s, with the regime seeking to maintain a
popular base by fielding candidates with some personal local following.
Last Friday's election reflected two trends.
is the regime's increasing feeling of insecurity. Despite President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defiant posture, the Khomeinist establishment
still fears military action by America, Israel or both. The Islamic
Republic sees itself surrounded by US military power present in 12 of
Iran's 15 Mideast neighbors. That feeling of insecurity is intensified
by unrest in the provinces, where elements of the Kurdish, Baluchi,
Arab and Turkmen ethnic minorities are showing signs of revolt against
the central government.
The elections show that the regime
regards security as its most urgent need, with the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps dominating the electoral process and filling
the incoming Islamic Consultative Assembly (the Majlis) with its
retired or active officers. The vote tally shows that the IRGC could
end up with some 70 percent of the seats in the Majlis.
The IRGC fielded candidates in three factions. The largest of these
looks to Ahmadinejad as its standard-bearer. Having entered the race
under the label of "fundamentalists," the pro-Ahmadinejad faction is
likely to end up with 100 out of the 290 seats. The second faction, led
by Tehran Mayor Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf, an IRGC general, may end up
with 30 seats. A third faction, sponsored by former IRGC Commander Gen.
Mohsen Rezai and backed by former negotiator on the nuclear issue Ali
Larijani, is slated to win 20.
At least half of the 40 men
elected as independents are also former or active members of the IRGC
or security services linked to it and therefore likely to side with
their fellow military men on crucial issues.
Some 30 seats are
likely to go to elements close to former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani. These describe themselves as "reformists" and promise to
form the core of opposition to Ahmadinejad.
In the next Majlis, the number of members with IRGC backgrounds will be twice as large as that of mullahs.
Using elections as a means of purging the regime, the IRGC has
dislodged many elements linked with the 1979 revolution. Most of the
prominent mullahs who led the revolution are gone, along with men who
made a name by seizing US diplomats as hostages. Even members of the
Khomeini clan, including the late ayatollah's close blood relations,
were denied Majlis seats.
In other words, the Islamic Republic
has gone the way of many other Third World regimes by shedding most of
its early populist illusions and is increasingly relying on the
military and security services. Like other revolutions, the Khomeinist
revolution has sold its soul to the military in the hope of ensuring
its own security.
The second trend highlighted by the
elections is that the European Union policy of encouraging a behavior
change in the Islamic Republic, a policy recently also evoked by the
Bush administration, has had the opposite effect. Rather than
indicating a desire to change behavior on key issues - including
Tehran's drive for nukes - the Islamic Republic has produced the most
radical Majlis in its history.
Last year the Bush
administration, backed by the US Congress, put the IRGC on the list of
international terrorist organizations. Later, the United Nations
Security Council named several IRGC commanders as personae non grata
throughout the world. Banks and businesses belonging to IRGC have had
their assets frozen in some 40 countries, including most EU members and
the United States.
Yet, the message from Tehran is clear: If
you wish to deal with the Islamic Republic, you have to deal with the
IRGC. Although no Iranian Bonaparte has emerged yet, the military cap
clearly is replacing the turban at the summit of Tehran politics.