March 19, 2008 -- THE European Union dismissed last Friday's Iranian parlia mentary election as a farce, while the United States described it as a travesty. Yet, whatever it might have seemed in Western eyes, the vote provided a crucial insight into the balance of power in the Tehran establishment.
Islamic Republic elections resemble American party primaries. Voters choose among preselected candidates vetted and approved by the authorities. The system is based on the principle that, because all candidates are loyal to the "Supreme Guide" and sworn to obeying him, it makes no difference which ones win. In practice, however, the choices offered by the regime - and those made by the electorate - can and at times do make a difference.
Often, the choices offered by the regime indicate its current needs and anxieties. In the regime's early years, in 1980 and 1984, the choices offered reflected its need to consolidate itself around a hard core of mullahs. In the elections that followed the 1988 end of the Iran-Iraq war, the regime tried to attract the middle classes by fielding some academics and businessmen as candidates along with the inevitable mullahs. The trend continued in the 1990s, with the regime seeking to maintain a popular base by fielding candidates with some personal local following.
Last Friday's election reflected two trends.
The first is the regime's increasing feeling of insecurity. Despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defiant posture, the Khomeinist establishment still fears military action by America, Israel or both. The Islamic Republic sees itself surrounded by US military power present in 12 of Iran's 15 Mideast neighbors. That feeling of insecurity is intensified by unrest in the provinces, where elements of the Kurdish, Baluchi, Arab and Turkmen ethnic minorities are showing signs of revolt against the central government.
The elections show that the regime regards security as its most urgent need, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps dominating the electoral process and filling the incoming Islamic Consultative Assembly (the Majlis) with its retired or active officers. The vote tally shows that the IRGC could end up with some 70 percent of the seats in the Majlis.
The IRGC fielded candidates in three factions. The largest of these looks to Ahmadinejad as its standard-bearer. Having entered the race under the label of "fundamentalists," the pro-Ahmadinejad faction is likely to end up with 100 out of the 290 seats. The second faction, led by Tehran Mayor Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf, an IRGC general, may end up with 30 seats. A third faction, sponsored by former IRGC Commander Gen. Mohsen Rezai and backed by former negotiator on the nuclear issue Ali Larijani, is slated to win 20.
At least half of the 40 men elected as independents are also former or active members of the IRGC or security services linked to it and therefore likely to side with their fellow military men on crucial issues.
Some 30 seats are likely to go to elements close to former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. These describe themselves as "reformists" and promise to form the core of opposition to Ahmadinejad.
In the next Majlis, the number of members with IRGC backgrounds will be twice as large as that of mullahs.
Using elections as a means of purging the regime, the IRGC has dislodged many elements linked with the 1979 revolution. Most of the prominent mullahs who led the revolution are gone, along with men who made a name by seizing US diplomats as hostages. Even members of the Khomeini clan, including the late ayatollah's close blood relations, were denied Majlis seats.
In other words, the Islamic Republic has gone the way of many other Third World regimes by shedding most of its early populist illusions and is increasingly relying on the military and security services. Like other revolutions, the Khomeinist revolution has sold its soul to the military in the hope of ensuring its own security.
The second trend highlighted by the elections is that the European Union policy of encouraging a behavior change in the Islamic Republic, a policy recently also evoked by the Bush administration, has had the opposite effect. Rather than indicating a desire to change behavior on key issues - including Tehran's drive for nukes - the Islamic Republic has produced the most radical Majlis in its history.
Last year the Bush administration, backed by the US Congress, put the IRGC on the list of international terrorist organizations. Later, the United Nations Security Council named several IRGC commanders as personae non grata throughout the world. Banks and businesses belonging to IRGC have had their assets frozen in some 40 countries, including most EU members and the United States.
Yet, the message from Tehran is clear: If you wish to deal with the Islamic Republic, you have to deal with the IRGC. Although no Iranian Bonaparte has emerged yet, the military cap clearly is replacing the turban at the summit of Tehran politics.