In Iran — like anywhere else — political disagreements have a tendency of going upwards to be resolved. The more serious or bad-tempered the disagreement, the higher up it can go.
But in Iran, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei officially has the religious, as well as the political, last word, and is hence loath to be seen as involved in daily politics. Ayatollah Khamenei prefers to remain aloof even if his office is involved in every branch of government.
Hence Tehran’s chattering classes have become agitated when Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, the parliamentary speaker, revealed he had brought Ayatollah Khamenei into a dispute between the parliament and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over heating supplies.
Ahmadinejad had refused to implement a bill passed by parliament offering relief to villages suffering gas cuts at a time of plunging temperatures. Parliament’s move was a response to many areas being left without heating in Iran’s coldest winter for years. At least 64 people were reported dead in a country with the world’s second-largest reserves of both natural gas and oil.
The publicity surrounding Ayatollah Khamenei’s intervention in overruling the president arose from tension between deputies about upcoming parliamentary elections. Elected politicians dislike volatility, and Iran has been politically energized since Ahmadinejad’s victory when he steamrolled the reformists’ agenda of social freedom by calling for a more egalitarian distribution of oil income.
Ahmadinejad elicited a wide expectation that politicians should provide a tangibly better life for ordinary folk. Iranians, well aware oil prices are at record levels, are in no mood to tighten their belts.
Bringing Ayatollah Khamenei to help freezing Iranians served a clear political purpose for Haddad-Adel, who topped the Tehran poll in the 2004 election.
With a new election looming, Haddad-Adel is not keen on being too close to Ahmadinejad’s government, especially with a wave of media criticisms of the president over rising prices. Inflation is officially at 17%, but in reality it is probably over 20%.
Haddad-Adel is relatively close ideologically to the president, but Ahmadinejad’s opponents are also firmly focused on the parliamentary elections.
The reformists in particular are looking for a parliament that will hem in the president for the final year of his first term. In the process, they hope for a shift in political advantage away from the president and his fundamentalist allies, perhaps even opening the door for a more productive relationship with the West.
With Iran’s near absence of parties, its electoral politics are hard to understand much less predict. But in the run-up to next month’s poll, there is a drift towards polarization between one camp of reformists, and some pragmatic conservatives, and another camp comprising the fundamentalists.
While it seems unlikely the reformists will agree to a single list, there will be an overlap of names on the two main lists, which some analysts suggest could be as much as 80% in common.
The reformists’ prospects will depend in the first instance on whether the Guardian Council, the constitutional vetting body, repeats the mass disqualifications — mainly of reformists — of the last parliamentary election in 2004.
Former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, former parliamentary speaker, Mehdi Karrubi, and to a lesser extent Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who heads the Expediency Council, have all spoken obliquely about the dangers of disqualification. Any public row could drag in Ayatollah Khamenei. While the leader allowed disqualifications in 2004, he did intervene in the 2005 presidential election to allow the two main reformist candidates to run.
Meanwhile, the United Front of Principle-ists (or fundamentalists) claims half of its election lists have been agreed. Their coalition comprises three currents, only one of which is closely identified with the president, that have established committees in all 30 provinces to organize lists.
But three important figures, Mohsen Rezaei, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s mayor, and Ali Larijani, the former chief security official, have so far refused to join the coalition. They are keen to keep their distance from the government, despite the dangers of division in the conservative camp.
But it is far from clear the reformists are set for any electoral breakthrough. Their agenda of social freedoms and political reform has been overwhelmed recently by the conservatives’ concentration on day-to-day economic matters.
The conservatives have followed a deliberate strategy since 2002-3, based on an assessment of the aspirations of the baby-boomers born after the 1979 Revolution. Conservatives have judged, apparently correctly, that the baby-boomers would become less concerned with social freedom and more with the costs of marriage and having children.
Hence the most likely result of poll on March 14 remains a conservative majority, albeit a reduced one.