At Large

Persian Politics Alive And Well

Just in time for the U.S. primaries, Iran kicks off its political season.

By 12.4.07

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It is definitely the political season in Iran. News of political activity in that country is streaming out from all corners. This is quite a change from the normally highly controlled information flow. The fact that Washington now has altered its assessment of the imminent production of an Iranian nuclear weapon, however, does not change the internal dynamics of Persian politics.

A regular aspect of Iranian exile politics -- a principal source of news from inside Iran -- has been to furnish reports to the media of active dissent in their homeland. Rival groups compete with each other to get the attention of the Western media. It's still difficult to judge news sources, but there is no question that Iran's information industry is bubbling with rumors of change in process. The real test for change will begin with the parliamentary candidate registration process beginning in January and ending with the elections in March.

Out front of the reformist movement is a surprisingly reinvigorated Mohammad Khatami, the former president. Ayatollah Khatami has once again assumed the mantle of leadership of the reform movement in general, even if more as a symbol than an individual political power. Khatami has been willing to allow himself to become the focus of renewed vigor of political reform. He has appeared at rallies and attended policy meetings with key cabinet aspirants. A serious attempt to build a legitimate opposition to President Ahmadinejad's regime is under way.

The first hurdle, however, is not with the electorate but with the Council of Guardians. The real behind-the-scenes politicking must be done within this powerful constitutional instrument of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which acts as the first line of control over who does and does not run for Iran's 290-seat parliament.

It is the reformers' hope that Ayatollah Khamenei and his advisers react to the economic shortfalls that are an ever-present reality in Iran. Unemployment is high and growing worse. Inflation cuts the ground out from underneath serious governmental efforts to control rising prices. The bureaucracy under the leadership of Ahmadinejad and his fundamentalist acolytes displays an incompetence that is apparent at every official level.

Nonetheless, the aggressive president tours the country with seeming endless energy, placing blame for governmental ineptitude and economic incomprehension on all the usual suspects -- the great and lesser satans of the West. In his version of good old pork barrel politics, Ahmadinejad dashes about the provinces promising whatever is wanted, whenever it's wanted. Soft loans, public works projects, new subsidies -- all are offered without clarity regarding how they will be provided.

In the larger cities, though, there seems to be a strong reaction among the electorate for change back to a time when there appeared to be a glimmer of return to the "kinder gentler" days when claims they might be bombed into dust by the Americans were not a national rallying cry. About ten thousand people turned out in Meshad to support Khatami, demanding change from Ahmadinejad's bellicose leadership.

In opposition to the political psychological urge for a less threatening environment is the rather obvious growth of civil and social power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. During the presidency of Ahmadinejad, a fervent supporter of the IRGC, the organization has vigorously stretched it domestic economic power through private business dealings. Traditional business instruments have been challenged, thus creating elements of internal conflict. It's an area on which reformers can delicately, but effectively, play.

The international sanctions led by the United States have had a conspicuous impact on Tehran's ability to do business. The financial system available to Iranian business has become increasingly difficult to negotiate in spite of the numerous covert government-owned private companies established to circumvent controls. It is as yet unclear what effect President Bush's announcement that Iran had ceased its nuclear weapon development will have on the continuation of existing trade and finance restrictions.

There are signs that former president Mohammad Khatami has been willing to act as the forerunner in the merging of reformists and the conservative forces of the other ex-president, Hashemi Rafsanjani. The key maneuver being mooted is a plan to have the pragmatic Rafsanjani step into the leadership role when it comes time for Ahmadinejad to be replaced.

As in all things Persian, that which is apparent is not necessarily what exists. Iranians don't know any other method of operating. One thing is for sure, however: whatever is evolving must have the approval of the supreme leader and Council of Guardians. But the mere fact that movement is being observed publicly is not a good sign for Ahmadinejad. This winter and spring will show the way, and he knows it. All sides will be watching their backs.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.