In Election-season Iran, Domestic Politics Trump Fear of Israeli Attack

Although sanctions talk is uniting politicians, personal enmities are never far from the surface.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Last Saturday was the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Despite the official ceremonies and the officially-organized demonstrations, it was not an especially pleasant day. Light rain fell on Tehran and at night the temperature fell to minus 3 degrees Celsius.

In the streets, according to some bloggers, there is talk of "the year of the war" against Iran. "There isn't panic yet, or fear, but there are questions," wrote one blogger. On his site there is a link to a Reuters report stating that China has decided to cut the amount of iron it imports from Iran. Is the fear of sanctions increasing? Not necessarily.

Demonstrators in Tehran on Saturday, celebrating the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.Credit: Reuters

India has announced that its oil imports from Iran increased by 37 percent in January, and the ski site at Shemshak - about a 45-minute drive from Tehran - is full of skiers of both sexes, despite the strict warning against mingling there published last month by the morality police. The British tourism company Persian Voyages is still offering organized tours to Iran's ancient cities (1,750 pounds Sterling in four-star hotels ), treks up Mount Damavand to an altitude of 5,500 meters or ski trips. The dates for the tours apparently are not taking the coming war into account. In August 2012, the next trek will set out and only a few places are left for the ski packages in February.

Nor do members of the Iranian parliament look especially troubled by an Israeli or other attack. There, the campaign for the elections on March 3 is well underway. These are important elections, not because they will draw a new political map in Iran, since most of those defined as reformists have decided to boycott them, but rather because they will determine the extent to which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will manage to leave a political legacy that will continue his path even after he stops serving as president next year, as the Iranian constitution requires.

This is a dirty political fight that in some of its elements is reminiscent of Israeli politics. For example, take the story of MP Ahmad Tavakkoli's doctorate. Tavakkoli, one of Ahmadinejad's most strenuous opponents, accused the president's associate, First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, of complicity in one of the worst corruption scandals in Iran, in which about $3 billion "disappeared."

Last September the affair raised a storm in the banking system and government's insurance company, which bore most of the loss. At that time the head of the court system, Sadeq Larijani, a brother of parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani - another of Ahmadinejad's rivals - ordered a swift investigation and the punishment of those guilty with the full force of the law. However, when it emerged that Rahimi was one of the key people involved, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei intervened and ordered that he not be tried. It is hard to find a satisfactory explanation for Khamenei's intervention apart from Ahmadinejad's implied threat that he intends to reveal the involvement of Khamenei's son Mojtaba in "terrible" corruption affairs.

Following the investigation's cessation, Tavakkoli called for renewing it and trying Rahimi. In response, Rahimi published an "indictment" of his own against Tavakkoli, in which he related that Tavakkoli had received a scholarship to complete a master's degree in the sciences in London when he already had a master's degree from Beheshti University in Iran. And, worse than that, his doctorate is not actually real.

"How can it be that Tavakkoli receives a scholarship for 38 months when he has been approved for only 11 months?" wondered Rahimi in his memo. He then hastened to add more wrongdoings to Tavakkoli's misdeeds, including the purchase of land in north Tehran "for an eighth of the market price."

This isn't the only political scrapping that is inflaming Iran. The conservative groups running in the elections are split between supporters of Ahmadinejad and supporters of Khamenei. However, within Khamenei's camp - which unites 18 movements - a dispute emerged when Ali Motahari, brother-in-law of the parliamentary speaker and fierce opponent of Ahmadinejad, announced he was forming an independent group that will not run in the framework of Khamenei's supporters. He is calling his group Critics of the Tenth Government - Ahmadinejad's - and its aim is to push the president's supporters out of the parliament.

These are not struggles that will decide the question of the atomic program - there is more or less wall-to-wall consensus regarding the development of nuclear technology - but they could pose more serious challenges to Ahmadinejad than in the past with regard to his economic policy and the state of the economy in Iran, which is being affected by the sanctions.

Are the ructions in Iran's domestic politics likely to affect its policy toward the West? Not in the short term, in light of an election race in which each side is making an effort to present a fiercer nationalist outlook than the next. In an election season, even the sanctions imposed by the West are not helping to change the policy when every side is trying to present determined patriotism against the enemies from without.

However, after the elections and before the presidential elections next year, the parliament will have to examine the diplomatic implications for the country and to propose diplomatic alternatives. This is a period of time that suits the proponents of an attack on Iran, but anyone who wants to see a change from within will have to dance to the Iranian beat.



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