The growing ascendancy of Hashemi Rafsanjani, who recently won the most votes in elections for the Council of Experts in Iran, and seems likely to be the next head of this Council, is seen by many observers as a vote of no confidence in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure. The Council of Experts is charged with the task of appointing the successor to the present Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The Council’s choice will dictate the long-term direction of Iran.
A simple reading of the situation would seem to indicate that the surprising move to the right that occurred when Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 has been countered by a swing back to the left in the Iranian electorate. But right and left are misleading terms when used in relation to the two pre-eminent governing factions in Iran.
Former president Mohammad Khatami was often seen as the champion of the left in Iran, while Rafsanjani was regarded as a pragmatic leader on the right. With the decline of the reformist group after the end of Khatami’s second term in 2005, Rafsanjani has repositioned himself to fill the vacuum on the left, moving to the centre and appealing to the large constituency that had kept Khatami’s (mostly stymied) reformists in power for nearly eight years.
The right in Iran continues to draw inspiration form the 1979 revolution, and invokes revolutionary rhetoric to justify its socially conservative domestic and uncompromising international policies. The left, on the other hand, tends to favour less restrictive social policies, and is somewhat more accommodating in its external policies.
The close friendship that president Ahmadinejad enjoys with the socialist president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez - the two announced last week a $1billion fund to help poor nations "free themselves from the yoke of American imperialism" - demonstrates the fluid nature of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in Iran.
Reports from Iran suggest that disillusionment with President Ahmadinejad’s policies is growing within the country. Despite grand promises, the Iranian government has not come up with any new economic policies to deal with inflation (over 12% in 2006), or Iran’s skyrocketing imports that are eating into any gains that might have followed from the oil price boom.
In looking to the international sphere, many people in Iran are uneasy with the confrontational approach of the present government. With 70% of the population under 30 years of age, a large number of voters have no personal memory of the revolution. This younger generation is less likely to be guided by the revolutionary fervour that seems to drive President Ahmadinejad’s domestic and international policies.
Former president Khatami enjoyed considerable support from the younger generation, who were not best-pleased to see so many reforms, such as a more free press, overturned in such short order.
Three inter-related issues lie at the crux of current tensions between Iran and the international community: Iran’s pursuit of atomic energy; Iran’s antagonism towards Israel; and Iran’s regional ambitions. Of these, only the first issue enjoys popular support among the people of Iran.
The leadership has presented the question of access to nuclear energy as a matter of sovereign right and national pride. This message has attracted support across the political spectrum, strengthening Ahmadinejad’s hand. However, there is greater diversity of opinion in relation to Iran’s anti-Israel postures and pro-Shia proclamations in Iraq and Lebanon.
A growing trend among the Iranian intelligentsia, outside government circles, is questioning the merits of these policies. Some have even gone as far as to state that the protracted Arab-Israeli dispute does not have direct relevance to Iranian interests, and that Tehran should steer clear of it.
Tehran’s decision to host a conference on the Holocaust, involving convicted Holocaust deniers, proved too much for a group of Iranian students who chanted anti-regime slogans and burned pictures of Ahmadinejad at a university function recently. This was a rare event in Iran, signalling a returning boldness among at least some students.
The left and right ends of politics in Iran is occupied by a narrow band of conservative leaders. The effective exclusion of the reformist camp from political power has deprived the regime of a safety valve, which had proven effective in keeping the restive young generation engaged. Without a reformist leadership in the parliament, or in the government of Ahmadinejad, it is easy for the electorate to disengage from the political establishment.
Rafsanjani’s election to head the Council of Experts does not so much signify a gain for reform in Iran, but the very limited range of options available to the electorate. Rafsanjani’s other role, as head of the Expediency Council, further reinforces this impression. This limitation is unlikely to boost the long term stability of the Islamic regime in Iran.