World, Politics

As ballot delivers massive blow to Ahmadinejad, Iran’s nuclear future unclear

By Khadija Patel 5 March 2012

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s lay populists took a drubbing in parliamentary elections last Friday. More than 200 of parliament's 290 seats were declared by Sunday and more than half the winners support Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. By KHADIJA PATEL.

On Sunday, US President Barack Obama said the US “will not hesitate” to use force to stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.”Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment – I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama told the annual American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) policy conference in Washington. But while Obama was still holding out hope for a diplomatic solution to the threat of Iran’s nuclear capability, Israeli President Shimon Peres insisted Iran posed an existential threat to Israel.  “Iran is an evil, cruel, morally corrupt regime. It is based on destruction and is an affront to human dignity,” Peres said.

Even as Obama warned of “too much loose talk of war”, a report in British newspaper The Telegraph claims Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is to demand Obama’s support for punitive military action against Iran. According to the report, Netanyahu will tell Obama that the only way to prevent a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran is to pledge that the US will attack the nuclear sites before the Iran can acquire a weapon.

“Military planners have concluded that never before has the timing for a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities been so auspicious,” the report cites a source close to Israel’s security establishment as saying.

This talk of war has certainly not gone unnoticed by Iran. Increasing international pressure on Iran has failed to intimidate the likes of Ahmedinejad, but has succeeded in making the Iranian government particularly vulnerable. The turnout at Friday’s parliamentary elections was seen as a litmus test for the legitimacy of the Iranian government and its electoral system.  The last time Iran held an election, presidential polls in 2009, the country teetered on the brink of chaos as the opposition “Green” movement claimed electoral fraud.  This time around, Iran sought to shake off the memory of those protests and portray the turnout as a repudiation of pressure over the country’s nuclear programme instead.

As the Iranian government rolled out a campaign equating voting in the parliamentary election with loyalty to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Khamenei compared voting to a religious obligation. The Iranian people seem to have taken heed. The interior ministry said on  Saturday that 64.2% of the nation’s eligible voters cast their ballots, close to the 65% figure officials had targeted. In a statement on Sunday, the Iranian foreign ministry lauded the turnout, saying “the Iranian nation’s huge turnout in the election in the sensitive historic era showed it firmly defended its national interests and independence despite all plots, pressures, sanctions and slanders of arrogance media and circles.”

But as Iranian government officials laud the turnout, the credibility of the vote itself has been called into question by human rights campaigners and opposition activists. In a statement released last week, Human Rights Watch said a fair vote in Iran was impossible. “Iran’s parliamentary elections … will be grossly unfair,” HRW said. “[It] follows the disqualification of hundreds of candidates based on vague and ill-defined criteria, and opposition leaders are either barred from participating, serving unjust prison sentences, or refusing to participate in what they consider sham elections.” Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi are reported to have been placed under house arrest last month. According to HRW the Iranian government had “stacked the deck” in the parliamentary elections by arbitrarily jailing reformists and turning down dozens of candidates for “lack of adherence to Islam and the constitution”.

Similarly, a report released by human rights watchdog Amnesty International last week found that the repression of free speech worsened in the run-up to the parliamentary election. In a 71-page report titled, “We are ordered to crush you”: Expanding Repression of Dissent in Iran, AI says, “The clampdown has targeted electronic media, seen by the authorities as a major threat. In January a senior police officer said Google was an ‘espionage tool’, not a search engine. The same month, the recently established Cyber Police required owners of Internet cafés to install CCTV and to register the identity of users before allowing them to use computers.”

It is in this context that Iranians streamed to polling stations to cast their ballots. With 90% of ballot boxes counted by Sunday, politicians affiliated to Khamenei were expected to occupy more than three-quarters of the 290 seats in the Majlis (parliament).  In the race for the 30 seats in the capital Tehran, reports indicated Khamenei supporters had taken 19 and pro-Ahmadinejad candidates the remainder. Leading the fight against Ahmedinejad was Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, a key ally of Khamenei and father-in-law to the paramount leader’s son, Mojtaba.

Other candidates who had gained ascendancy in Tehran included parliamentary member Ahmad Tavakoli, who has frequently denounced Ahmadinejad’s policies as well as the country’s former oil minister Masoud Mir Kazemi, who was dismissed by the president last year. Significantly, the state-run Mehr news agency reported Ahmadinejad’s sister, Parvin, lost her race in their hometown of Garmsar, southeast of the capital, further proving the diminishing popularity of Ahmedinejad.

The parliamentary elections are especially significant in political positioning for next year’s presidential race. Ahmadinejad’s term ends in 2013 and, under current Iranian legislation, he cannot run for the presidency again. The results do, however, prove that as well as  the international pressure heaped on the Iranian government, the country is also mired in considerable political discontent domestically. The United Principlist Front that has emerged victorious from Friday’s election has criticised Ahmadinejad for poor economic management and failing to show sufficient allegiance to Khamenei.

Although Khamenei backed Ahmedinejad in the disputed 2009 election – ensuring his re-election – the two have repeatedly clashed over Ahmedinejad’s political appointments and his choice of aides. In May last year Ahmedinejad stayed away from work for a week after Khamenei overruled him by negating the resignation of intelligence minister Heidar Moslehi.
While most analysts believe the results of the parliamentary elections will have little, if any, effect on the country’s nuclear programme, esteemed Middle East analyst Juan Cole believes otherwise. Writing in his blog, Informed Comment, Cole says, “It seems to me that one implication of pro-Khamenei hard liners dominating parliament is that the Supreme Leader’s authority has been enhanced. And he is deploying his authority to forbid the acquisition of a nuclear warhead.”

Cole points out that Khamenei gave a major foreign policy speech on 22 February refuting allegations of Iran’s nuclear capability. “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous,” Khamenei is reported as saying.

As Cole rightly points out, this latest anti-nuclear sentiment from Khamenei is not new. He has consistently taken an anti-nuclear stance. In 2009 he said, “They (Western countries) falsely accuse the Islamic republic’s establishment of producing nuclear weapons. We fundamentally reject nuclear weapons and prohibit the use and production of nuclear weapons. This is because of our ideology, not because of politics or fear of arrogant powers or an onslaught of international propaganda. We stand firm for[sic] our ideology.”

The rise of a political faction more in tune with Khamenei may signal a shift in the Iranian psyche, demanding a less ambiguous approach to the country’s nuclear programme. It may not be enough to avert war, but it does tell the story of an Iranian people who’d much prefer not to court any further trouble. DM



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Photo: A member of parliament walks past pictures of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and late Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (L) in parliament in Tehran, November 1, 2011. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

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