While trying to project his image as a world leader offering an alternative to "American hegemony", President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran may be heading for his first major political defeat at home. In fact, some analysts in Tehran expect his defeat to be so decisive as to puncture the super-inflated image created by his friends and foes, albeit for different reasons.
It is in the context of two sets of elections, to be held on Dec. 15, that Ahmadinejad's defeat is expected to materialize.
The first election will be for local government authorities throughout Iran, deciding the fate of thousands of village and town councils that provide the day-to-day interface of the Khomeinist regime with citizens.
At present, the various radical Khomeinist factions that supported Ahmadinejad in the last presidential election control only a third of all local government authorities. The more conservative and business-connected factions, led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, control a further 25 percent while the rest have majorities of independents and/or regional groupings that are always open to new alliances.
Ahmadinejad had hoped to win a majority of the local government authorities for two reasons. First, he counted on a low turnout that always favors the more radical Khomeinist candidates. Four years ago, Ahmadinejad won control of the Tehran Municipal Council, the largest local government in Iran, and became mayor of the capital, in an election that attracted only 15 percent of the qualified voters.
The second reason that Ahmadinejad had in mind was the possibility of forging a broad alliance of all radical revolutionary factions while the more conservative groups led by Rafsanjani and former Majlis Speaker Ayatollah Mahdi Karrubi appeared unable to unite.
With just days before polling, however, both of Ahmadinejad's calculations appear in doubt. The conservative and moderate groups have abandoned an earlier strategy to boycott the election and presented lists of candidates in more than half of the constituencies. The opposition groups acting outside the regime have also toned down their calls for boycott. Thus, the turnout may be higher than Ahmadinejad had hoped. A higher turnout could mean more middle class voters going to the polls to counterbalance the peasants and the urban poor who constitute the president's electoral base.
Although public opinion in Iran polls are not always reliable, most informal polls show that up to 30 percent of those eligible to vote may actually do so. And, that could be bad news for Ahmadinejad.
Even worse news for him is the failure of the Itharis (Self-sacrificers) group that forms the hard core of his support to form alliances with other radical Khomeinist groups and factions. In Tehran, for example, Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, the man who replaced Ahmadinejad as mayor of the capital, has decided to ally himself with the Itharis but with conservative groups opposed to the president. Qalibaf, one of the four candidates defeated by Ahmadinejad in the last presidential election may well be motivated by sour grapes. However, his defection for the radical camp could help the conservative groups regain a place in the largest municipal government authority in the country. The Tehran Municipality could emerge as a bully pulpit for the president's many political foes.
The second election that Ahmadinejad had hoped to win but is now likely to lose is even more important. This is for the so-called Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 theologians who have the task of choosing and, when and if needed, dismissing the " Supreme Guide".
Initially, Ahmadinejad's ambition appeared to be directed at winning a majority of the assembly thus holding a Damocles sword above the head of the incumbent "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi. Some had even suggested that an assembly controlled by the president's supporters would force Khamenehi to resign on health grounds, appointing Ayatollah Muhamad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Ahmadinejad's theological guru, as "Supreme Guide".
Winning control of the Assembly of Experts at this time could be of particular importance because Khamenehi, though still relatively young at 66 years of age, is said to be n declining health. The assembly is elected for eight years and thus may find itself obliged to pick a new "Supreme Guide" before its term is over.
Ahmadinejad's plan to win control of the assembly hit two big snags.
The first was the refusal of the Council of Guardians of the Constitution, a 12-mullah body that must approve all candidates, to allow many of Ahmadinejad's friends to stand for election. Ti start with, the council refused to allow any woman to file for candidacy. It then rejected nearly half of the 493 applications made. Most of the rejected applicants belonged to the pro-business conservative groups led by Rafsanjani and his protégé former President Muhammad Khatami. But a few also belonged to Ahmadinejad's camp. Among the approved candidates are all but two of the incumbent members.
All this means that the council, almost certainly acting under instructions from Khamenehi has arranged things in such a way that no substantial change in the assembly's majority is now possible. By most account only 17 new members may eventually enter the assembly, not enough to upset its pro-Khamenehi majority.
Khamenehi has even allowed Rafsanjani to stand as a candidate, thus indicating a desire to clip Ahmadinejad's wings.
The two sets of elections are important not because they reflect the true wishes of the Iranian people. Elections in the Islamic republic are more like primaries within the same party in the United States. Also, since all election results could eventually be cancelled by the Council of the Guardians or the "Supreme Guide", the possibility of genuine opposition figures coming to power through elections is almost nil.
Nevertheless, elections in the Islamic republic must be treated as important for two reasons. The first is that they provide a more or les accurate picture of the relative strength of the various rival factions within the regime, thus providing an insight into the current mood of he ruling elite. The second is that the "Supreme Guide" and his security services could arrange every election in a way to reflect the new mood and open the way for policy changes. In 1997, for example, the
"Supreme Guide" and his services felt the need for a smiling face and arranged for Khatami to be elected president. In 2005, shaken by student revolts, workers' strikes and growing American pressure in the region, they decided that a return to radicalism would be the better ticket. That helped Ahmadinejad become president, despite the fact that his initial mass base consisted only of five million votes, out of 46 million eligible voters.
A setback for Ahmadinejad in the two elections next week may not necessarily signal a desire on the part of the ruling elite to step back from the brink of an open conflict with the US. But it would provide a warning to Ahmadinejad not to become too big for his boots, either at home or abroad. It would be interesting to see how Ahmadinejad and his radical base might respond to their first major setback at a crucial time.