By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News
Although it would take several days before the full results of twin elections held in Iran last Friday are officially established, it is already clear that the electorate have dealt the ultra-radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad his first significant political defeat.
The first and politically more important election concerned the choice of 86 mullahs to form the new Assembly of Experts (AOE) who has the task of electing and, if need be, dismissing the "Supreme Guide."
Since the "Supreme Guide" holds almost unlimited powers under the Islamist constitution, many analysts regard as the true powerhouse of the Khomeinist system.
Elected for eight years, the new AOE may well choose the next "Supreme Guide" before it term ends in 2014. The incumbent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, although only 66, is said to be in declining health that might force him to relinquish his position.
Before last week's election, however, the possibility of an earlier end to Khamenei's career as "Supreme Guide" had become a hot topic in Tehran's political circles.
There was a feeling that Ahmadinejad, representing a new generation of radical revolutionaries with military and security backgrounds, was planning to seize control of the AOE and use it to replace Khamenei with his own religious guru, a certain Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.
All that was needed for Ahmadinejad's alleged scheme to be implemented was a change of 17 seats in favour of his faction in the AOE.
With more than 90 per cent of the results confirmed by last Monday, however, it was clear that Ahmadinejad had failed to secure the extra 17 seats he needed. Worse still, his ultra-radical faction suffered other humiliations.
His guru, Mesbah-Yazdi came bottom of the list of those elected in Tehran while Ayatollah Hussain Gheravi, the faction's standard-bearer in the key province of Khorassan, where the holy city of Mashad is located, failed to win a seat.
However, possibly the worst blow to Ahmadinejad was the election of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mullah-cum-businessman he had handily defeated in presidential election in 2005.
Rafsanjani, whose political demise has been prematurely predicted on many occasions, was not only elected to the AOE but came top of the list in Tehran. As the come-back-kid of Iranian politics, Rafsanjani is also the man the Europeans look to for leading Iran away from the radical revolutionary path set by Ahmadinejad.
The real winner of the AOE election, however, is Khamenei. He can count on a solid bloc of 40 seats held by his own allies while the two rival factions, respectively led by Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani would be in no position to master a majority against him. By playing one faction against another, Khamenei is likely to remain the ultimate arbiter of Iran's politics for sometime yet.
The power struggle in Tehran, however, is far from over. In the other election, held for municipal councils throughout the country, the ultra-radical faction led by Ahmadinejad did much better.
With more than 90 per cent of the results confirmed, Ahmadinejad and his allies appear to have won control of councils in 27 of 30 provinces with some 73 per cent of the votes at national level.
The conservative faction, led by Rafsanjani and his two protégés, former president Mohammad Khatami and former parliamentary speaker Mahdi Karrubi, collected 18 per cent of the votes at the national level and won control in two provinces.
The remaining province, Tehran, the biggest in terms of population was won by a splinter group from Ahmadinejad's faction, led by Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf the outgoing mayor of the capital.
The blow dealt at Ahmadinejad is primarily a Tehran phenomenon. The capital city, with a population of some 15 million, is the stronghold of the Iranian middle classes that have been frightened by the president incendiary rhetoric and alleged cravings for a "Clash of Civilisations" that could include war.
The key reason for Ahmadinejad's defeat in Tehran and several other major cities was the unexpectedly high turnout, estimated by the interior ministry at over 50 per cent. In Tehran, for example, no more than 700,000 people had voted in the last election. This time the number jumped to more than two million out of some five million eligible to vote.
According to newspaper reports and eyewitnesses in Tehran, most of the new voters were young, westernise middle class men and women who made no secret of their determination to deal a blow to Ahmadinejad.
Voting in Iranian elections is always problematic. Since all candidates are approved by the authorities in advance, most citizens are in effect barred from running for office. Also, the results must be approved by a 12-man body of mullahs who could simply stroke anybody's name from the list of winners on often spurious grounds.
Nevertheless, many Iranians believe that even such limited and patently undemocratic elections could provide an opportunity for affecting the balance of power within the ruling establishment.
The impact of Ahmadinejad's defeat in the AOE elections on Iran's foreign policy is even harder to gauge. Rafsanjani and his faction have no means of directly influencing decision-making in that field.
But they could serve as a channel of communication between the European Union and Khamenei and persuade the latter to offer at least some of the concessions needed to defuse the crisis over Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions.
However, that possibility may force Ahmadinejad to heat up his rhetoric further and adopt an even more aggressive posture to prevent any deal brokered by the European Union.
As always in Iranian politics under Khomeinism, good news comes mixed with bad. Ahmadinejad is wounded but still very much alive. And that, according to Machiavelli, is when a political protagonist is at his most dangerous.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates