Iranian pre-election political dynamics are always raucous and full of surprises. But this time around, as we get closer to March 2008 parliamentary elections, things look a bit more intense than in the past. The intensity of the competition becomes even more curious with the realization that this time around the bipolar nature of Iranian politics is showing itself in the fight between hardline conservatives (or "principlists" as they call themselves in Iran) and the center of Iran’s political spectrum and not between reformists and hardliners.
Of course, one could argue that this new polarity was already evident in the Ninth presidential election which ended with the defeat of the centrist Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani by hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round of the 2005 presidential election and continued with a push back by the centrists in the 2006 elections for the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils. It reached a new peak in the competition for the head of the Assembly of Experts after its long standing leader, Ayatollah Meshkini, died. The hardliners, through their newspapers such as Kayhan and websites such as Rajanews and Khedmat, made every effort to discredit Hashemi Rafsanjani and prevent him from taking the helm of that assembly. Although they were successful in making the fight over the chairmanship of that institution competitive for the first time in its history, they failed in their attempt to prevent his ascent.
One would have thought that two unsuccessful attempts at dislodging Hashemi Rafsanjani and his centrist supporters from all positions of power would have been sufficient lessons for the hardliners not to try again. But faced with the possibility of yet another defeat in the upcoming parliamentary elections in the hands of centrist forces, the hardliners have taken their gloves off and are directly aiming at Hashemi Rafsanjani and in the process placing all the key players in Iranian politics in a very uncomfortable position.
The occasion for this rather ugly fight was the decision by Ahmadinejad’s Ministry of Intelligence about seven months ago to accuse and arrest Hossein Moussavian, Iran’s former ambassador to Germany, former member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, and deputy director of the Strategic Studies Center affiliated with the Expediency Council, on charges that were initially quite vague but suggested giving secret information to a foreign government (later revealed to be UK). After a while, through the reporting on various hard-line sites, these charges solidified into spying for a foreign government, holding of secret documents, and propaganda against the system.
The gravity of these charges and the closeness of Moussavian to both Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during Khatami’s presidency, shook the Iranian political scene. Moussavian was released on a relatively mild bail in 9 days, causing the parliament to call in for questioning Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei. It indeed the charges were so severe, what justified Moussavian’s release, members of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and National Security reportedly asked in closed door meeting? Ejei’s answer was a weak one: As far the Intelligence Ministry was concerned Moussavian’s crime was evident but the bail decision was set by the judge and his decision must be respected.
Worries about what the judge in the case would decide seemed to have been the trigger, prompting Ahmadinejad to go public on November 12 and announce in front a student audience that if domestic elements do not stop pressure regarding the nuclear file, they will be introduced to the people of Iran, adding “they are traitors… they are now putting pressure on the judge of a case so that a spy is exonerated… The People of Iran will not allow some, using their economic and political influence, to save criminals from people’s reprisal.”
Hashemi Rafsanjani’s action on the same day had more nuance. He simply allowed Moussavian to attend an official function of the Expediency Council and sit two seats apart from him and next to Moussavian’s former boss, Hassan Rowhani, who later chastised the president for finding someone guilty before the judge renders his decision. The message was clear. Hashemi Rafsanjani was not going to back away from his support of a loyal state manager.
All this led to public uproar. Hard-line media accused Hashemi Rafsanjani of trying to influence the case while the centrists accused the president of doing the same through his public announcements. In an opinion piece in the hard-line Rajanews, a commentator, in a not so subtle hint directed at Hashemi Rafsanjani, even raised the specter of Iran’s biggest foreign policy scandal of 1980s (revelations of Iran’s secret arms dealings with the United States), the execution of Mehdi Hashemi, and the ultimate purging of the then designated supreme leader to be, Ayatollah Hossein-ali Montazeri, for his unwavering support of the man who was found to be a traitor and executed.
Meanwhile, subtly criticizing Ahamdinejad, an increasing number of important conservative players, such as Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator until recently, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, and Ahmad Tavakoli, the head of Majles’ Research Center, began wondering about the wisdom of using the nuclear issue in a factional fight. Tavakoli suggested that these conflicts, instead of publicly, should be taken care of through “communication of the situation to the office of the leader.” The conservative newspaper Jomhuri-ye Eslami, even hinted at the prosecution of Ahmadinejad for defamation of a public servant prior to the decision made by courts.
The leader, meanwhile, is heard only making empty calls for national unity in a year ironically identified as the year of "national unity and Islamic solidarity" without any reference to the specifics of the conflict between the hardliners and the centrists or its intensity. He clearly wants to stay above the fray in a situation that may not allow him to do so.
Yesterday, the preliminary judge in the case finally rendered his decision, essentially throwing away the two charges of spying and holding secret documents, only upholding the nebulous charge of propaganda against the system (I say nebulous because almost all those arrested for political reasons are charged with this) and handing out a suspended sentence. This led to an immediate call by Ahmadinejad for the release of close to dozen conversations between Moussavian and foreigners which will prove his crime. The Intelligence Minister said that the Ministry will appeal and all this commotion paid off as Tehran’s chief prosecutor (who has very close ties to the supreme leader) refused to confirm the case today and in fact voided the suspended sentence, ordering a re-investigation. However, the chief prosecutor also ordered the Intelligence Ministry to keep the evidence it has secret.
So the drama will continue as Ahmadinejad and his supporters, including Minister of Intelligence Ejei, see no choice but to push full throttle in order to prove themselves right in making the conflicts over the nuclear file so public. Their supporters have called on members of the Basij militia to demonstrate in front of the judicial compound on Monday to protest the judge’s decision.
By elevating the case and posing a direct challenge, however, Ahmadinejad and his supporters have also made it impossible for Hashemi Rafsanjani to back down as this will be seen as an important loss for him. They have also antagonized a whole array of more moderate conservatives who are unhappy with the outright politicization of the nuclear issue for political gains.
Hashemi Rafsanjani is of course not immune to losses. On two important occasions he has lost through an electoral process. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, in which reformists won handily, he took an incredible amount of criticism from the reformers (who dubbed him “The Red Eminence” behind many malicious acts of the Islamic Republic). Voters had to be convinced about the reformers’ intent. Their strategy worked and many new voters thought that if the reformers could attack Hashemi Rafsanjani, the literal backbone of the Islamic Republic, so freely, then their desire for reform was serious.
Hashemi Rafsanjani also lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election on the basis of a campaign that made the former’s wealth and corruption an issue. Whether or not Ahmadinejad and his supporters can get mileage from the same theme after more than 2 ½ years of their own service is not entirely clear. This theme, publicly replayed through the Moussavian drama, will certainly excite Ahmadinejad’s own base of about 4 to 5 million who voted for him the first round of the 2005 election. But it is not clear if it would similarly excite the relatively large number of voters (again about 4 to 5 million) who shifted their allegiances from reformist and centrist candidates to vote for Ahmadinejad, presumably in an anti-Hashemi Rafsanjani move in the second round of the 2005 election.
Ahmadinejad supporters are also faced with the problem that parliamentary elections in Iran are a lot more parochial than presidential ones and the most important contest occurs in the city of Tehran which has 30 seats; with most of the leaders of the parliament coming from this capital city where reformist and centrist forces traditionally do better than hardliners if relatively large number of voters come out and vote.
Added to this problem is the fact that Hashemi Rafsanjani will not be on the ballot, only many former ministers, ambassadors, and prominent state managers who are identified with him or former president Khatami. By making accusations against Moussavian and essentially the entire previous nuclear team, hardliners hope to keep the connection to Hashemi Rafsanjani alive and convince the electorate to continue their pattern of mostly anti-elite vote that began with the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997.
But this strategy runs the risk of further alienating a large number of more moderate conservatives with long-standing ties to Hashemi Rafsanjani and the former state managers who are gearing up for the election. Many such the former presidential candidate Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri have called for the acceptance of the judge's decision.
In 1997, the reformists attacked Hashemi Rafsanjani in order to mobilize voters who were dissatisfied with the Islamic Republic. The hardliners attack on Hashemi Rafsanjani, this time around, will in all likelihood fire up their own base but probably not many more. The effect will more likely be like the 2006 Assembly of Experts election when Hashemi Rafsanjani garnered the largest number of votes in the city of Tehran out of the fear that his loss will push the scale too much to the side of the hardliners.
At the end, though, let us also remember that we are talking about Iran and nothing is settled until elections are actually held. The only thing for sure is that the upcoming parliamentary elections will be represented as a fight between the new elite (who deem themselves as incorruptible, in favor of social justice and hard-line but are represented by opponents as incompetent and hard-line) versus the old elite (who are represented as economically and politically corrupt by opponents but represent themselves as centrist and in favor of balance between social justice and capital accumulation). Not much of a choice, to be sure, but a choice nevertheless that has to be made by the voters either by voting in favor of one side or non-voting (as non-voting traditionally helps the hardliners in Iran).