The battle between Iran's conservatives and reformers is heating up ahead of the presidential election, scheduled for June. The very term "free elections" has been labeled by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as "a slogan of the fomenters of revolt" and "a new code for rebellion.”
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Not only is this a power struggle between reformers and conservatives, but also a face-off between the conservatives who oppose Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those who support him. Ahmadinejad himself cannot run in the election – the constitution limits the president to two consecutive terms in office. However, his opponents fear he will try to implant an army of supporters in key government positions and pass legislation that will perpetuate his power and serve as a lever for bringing him back to the president's seat in four years’ time.
The paradox is that the reformers and Ahmadinejad’s supporters are finding themselves on the same side – despite the fact that they are bitter rivals. The one group – the reformists – fomented the demonstrations against Ahmadinejad’s rigged reelection in 2009 and the other has not hesitated to challenge Khamenei’s leadership. Now, both groups are demanding free elections, without the crude intervention of the so-called committee of experts – which, in the 2009 election, approved only four candidates out of 476. The committee's function is ostensibly to act as a filter, selecting those candidates who " will best serve the will of the supreme leader."
Had Khamenei known at that time where his preferred candidate, Ahmadinejad, would lead Iran and into what public disputes he would drag the supreme leader -- it is doubtful he would have defended the election results so vigorously.
The 74-year-old Khamenei knows that the West mistakenly believes that he merely implements every decision with blind obedience. His bitter experience with Ahmadinejad has proved to him that maybe he can control the outcome of an election but he can’t predict how the president who has been elected will behave. Hence his sour reaction to the call for “free elections.”
The upcoming election could present Khamenei with a number of foreign policy challenges. How would he respond if United States President Barack Obama decides to listen to the increasing voices in the administration calling for direct dialogue with Iran? How can Egypt be seduced into renewing relations? What will happen when Syrian President Bashar Assad falls and how will Iran maintain its outposts in Lebanon? Who is the partner Tehran could find among the Palestinians now that Hamas has almost entirely cut off its ties with Iran?
Some of these concerns could have evaporated had Egypt responded positively to Iran’s courtship. Next week Ahmadinejad will visit Cairo to participate in the Islamic cooperation meeting. However, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s spokesmen hastened to announce that this is not an official visit by the Iranian president. They denied that Cairo's (deposed) speaker of the parliament has met with the speaker of the Iranian parliament or that there is any truth to reports of renewed scheduled flights between Cairo and Tehran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has proposed that the coming nuclear talks between Iran and the six global powers, slated for February, be held in Cairo. In this way Tehran is hoping to punish Turkey for its hostile policy toward Bashar Assad, and send a hint to Cairo about Iran’s ability to enhance Egypt’s status.
Cairo has been in no hurry to respond. It's not only Washington that has warned Morsi to avoid close ties with Iran. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have also made it clear, in private conversations and in the press, that the Egyptian leader would do well not to switch alliances.
“It is hard to imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood would decide in the future to endanger all the interests of their countrymen in order to change the political map in the region, but if this happens then all the discourse will take a new direction,” warned – or threatened – prominent Saudi commentator Abdul Rahman al-Rashad in an article in the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Alawsat, which is owned by cronies of the Saudi king.
Khamenei must also address the issue of the nuclear talks and to what extent Iran’s position should be more flexible. This dilemma is connected to the political situation inside the country. If Khamenei decides to concede and agrees to some of the international community's demands, should he make the gesture toward the six global powers with whom Iran has held talks – the United States, Britain, China, Russia, France and Germany -- or should he wait for the direct dialogue with the United States? If an American invitation to such a dialogue arrives, should he respond at once or wait until after the election, in order to prevent Ahmadinejad from scoring a political victory that would bolster his electoral support?
A total concession to the West’s demands is also unimaginable, since it would mean a complete reversal of Iran’s foreign policy, submission to Western pressures and a loss of the regime’s prestige in the eyes of its citizens. The way out will apparently be an Iranian-Western agreement on limiting the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, without damaging the nuclear development program. In that way both sides will be able to claim a victory. Until the next time.