Washington is so caught up with the debate about whether to bomb Iran or not that very little attention is being given to what is happening inside Iran and the very interesting dynamics that are at play as various individuals, political parties, and organizations gear up for the upcoming parliamentary election in March 2008.
This is an important election and from the looks of things key players in Iranian politics are taking the contest very seriously. The latest manifestation of this seriousness is the suggested list of 39 candidates for the city of Tehran just put out by the Kargozaran (Servants of Construction Party), a political party closely associated with Iran’s former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The list has been offered to Setad-e E'telaf-e Eslahgarayan (Headquarters for the Coalition of Reformists) and is yet to be finalized either as a separate list or as part of an agreed upon list for the reformists/centrists to enter the contest as a coalition. In short, there is still a lot of negotiating to occur as important reformist wings, including the centrist Etemad-e Melli (National Confidence Party) and the more liberal Mosharekat (Islamic Iran’s Participation Party), mull over the question of whether there are enough candidates over which there is agreement to allow for a unified list to be put forth by a coalition. Similar negotiations are going on in the conservative Jebheye Motahed-e Osulgarayan (best translated as the United Principalists Front) but no signs of agreement there either.
Still the Kargozaran list is itself of significance for a variety of reasons. First, it is important because it is a “powerful” list. It is reportedly headed by Mohammad Hashemi, the former president’s brother and a one time head of Iran’s broadcasting (IRIB), Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, and Mohammad Reza Aref, Khatami’s first vice-president. It also includes many former ministers of both Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations, Ayatollah Khamenei’s brother (don’t read much into this as he is not in good terms with his brother), a former mayor of Tehran, a couple of former ambassadors (including Sadeq Kharrrazi who reportedly authored the famous 2003 memo to the United States that called for some sort of a grand bargain).
The "power" of the list is significant because it makes it very difficult for the Guardian Council to disqualify men and women (the list has four or five women) who have until very recently been in charge of key ministries and positions. A disqualification will essentially mean a vote of no confidence against people who are not outsiders but have been key policy makers since the revolution. I do not think the Guardian Council will take that route and I venture to say that the content of the Kargozaran list is intended to place that body into precisely that predicament.
The list is also powerful because it suggests that key players in Iranian politics have not given up on coming back to power. The fact that so many have been willing to be placed on the list, despite the assured attack against their personal lives and finances by the hardliners, is a sign that contested politics in Iran (albeit still among a limited number of players) is alive and well.
The second reason the list is important is because it tells us something about the likely focus of the campaign; not on Iran’s foreign policy but economic mismanagement and incompetence of the conservatives and hardliners in power both in the parliament and the office of the presidency. Foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear file will be a backdrop since the economic direction of the country will in many ways depend on how the nuclear file is handled. But in all likelihood it will not be the point of overt public contention.
Economic management of the country will be. Conservatives and hardliners will try to make economic justice the main focus of the campaign as it was during the ninth presidential election in 2005 but Kargozaran are giving their hint that they will try to discuss the economic problems of the country as a management problem. Former ministers and state managers in the petroleum, agriculture, commerce, housing, energy ministries will be touted as both more competent and having a better vision of how the Iranian economy should be run.
Why all this is important is because the March elections will probably be a forerunner to issues and political maneuvering that will also be prevalent during the 2009 presidential election. A good showing by Kargozaran and the broader reformist coalition, even if they do not gain an outright majority, is a sign that the strategy pursued here will also be effective in the presidential election.
One final interesting note is that both Kargozaran and Etemad-e Melli parties have said that if former president Khatami agrees to run, he will head their list. Khatami has said that he will not and I seriously doubt he will change his mind. But the continuous reference to the possibility of him running suggests a belief that he is still a very popular man in Iran.