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The Persian Pragmatists

Don't be fooled by the conservative sweep in last week's Iranian elections.

Iran's recent parliamentary elections, conducted on Friday, stuck closely to a script familiar from the past four years: Conservatives predictably won the majority of seats from a ballot cleansed of reformists by the Guardians Council; turnout in cosmopolitan Tehran was lower than the provinces; and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted the U.S. for interfering in Iran's elections. The election's only clear winner--as usual, in this script--is Khamenei, whose virtual veto power over all matters of state, combined with a conservative ascendancy, grants him a political shield that will be difficult to penetrate.

But this year's script does offers some plot twists: A closer look at the election results reveals that the reformists did better than expected given their limited opportunities to run, and a significant bloc of independents with no clear political leaning has joined the parliament. Perhaps most importantly, substantive cleavages now divide Iran's conservatives--with important implications for the rest of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's term and the possible roadblocks to his re-election in 2009.

Reformists won some 35 seats and are in contention for almost 15 more in second-round voting. (Parliament has 290 seats; around 230 have been settled, with another 60 or so going to a second round.) Independents pulled in nearly 50 seats as well. Most of the remaining seats went to conservatives--a camp that is divided between hard-liners generally in sync with Ahmadinejad and a group of "pragmatic conservatives," who tend to be unsympathetic to the Iranian president. The divide generally splits between the United Principlist Front, affiliated with Ahmadinejad, and the Comprehensive Principlist Front, associated loosely with the pragmatic conservative camp. The pragmatists reportedly won 79 seats, as compared to the 83 seats won by hard-liners--an impressive showing given hard-line control of the state media and traditional patronage networks.

But who are these pragmatic conservatives and what will their place in the new parliament mean for Iran and the future of Ahmadinejad?

For starters, the pragmatic conservatives are less confrontational in foreign policy matters than Ahmadinejad. Depending on the issue, the differences lie in either policy or tone, and sometimes in both. On the nuclear issue, the pragmatists generally agree with Ahmadinejad--they too believe that Iran has a right to enrich uranium--but would pursue this goal in a climate of measured negotiations with the European Union and others. In fact, Ali Larijani, Iran's former nuclear negotiator, resigned last year over differences with Ahmadinejad on this issue. Larijani, who won a seat in last week's elections, looks to be a significant parliamentary thorn in the president's side and even a future challenger for the presidency in 2009.

On other issues of foreign policy, the divides among conservatives are not so clear. On regional policy, negotiations with America, and the country's confrontational stance toward Israel, the pragmatists do not differ markedly from the hard-liners. Their push for more active diplomatic engagement on many of these issues makes their positions seem more reasonable--which is, admittedly, a low bar when compared to a president who denies the Holocaust and glad-hands dictators around the world.

On economic policy, the differences are starker. Most in Iranian politics agree that Ahmadinejad's economic policies have brought Iranians substantively higher inflation, a depleted oil stabilization fund amid historically high oil prices, significant capital flight, and a generalized sense of economic disenchantment across wide swathes of the population. Fifty economists signed a series of open letters to Ahmadinejad criticizing his handling of the economy and dozens of parliamentarians have publicly lambasted the president on economic issues; the president even admitted himself in February that the economy needs "major surgery."

The pragmatic conservatives, along with the reformists and possibly a slate of independents, do not want Ahmadinejad to be the surgeon and thus will likely challenge him on his expansionary spending, which is causing inflation, and his policies that hurt the private sector, which have slowed growth. Here is where Ahmadinejad is vulnerable: He won his own election in 2005 on a populist platform of delivering to the poor and the struggling middle class--a promise he hasn't kept. If they can succeed in pushing their agenda, they will deal a major blow to Ahmedinejad's re-election prospects in 2009.

But the pragmatic conservatives will have to work hard to beat Ahmadinejad at his own populist game; in the past, they have often failed to connect deeply with Iranians, playing better in Davos and on the conference circuit than at home, where they are not adept at populist campaigning. One such leader, current Tehran mayor and former Revolutionary Guardsman Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, mingled and met with leading officials from the European Union recently but had turned off hard-liners and working-class voters in Iran with his stylish Ray-Bans and Top Gun swagger; after losing to Ahmadinejad in 2005, he will have to change his tactics to succeed in a rumored 2009 presidential bid.

One figure who knows about successful campaigning is former President Mohammad Khatami, who has emerged as a potential dark-horse challenger to Ahmadinejad in 2009. Influential reformist voices and some elements of the pragmatic conservative camp are urging the president to make another run. But it is a measure of the hopelessness and the restricted nature of Iranian politics that Khatami--whose tenure generated equal parts excitement and frustration--is seen as their best hope, after he had been severely hampered by many of those same conservatives who are in political ascendance today.

So while the winners of this parliamentary election are not entirely clear, there are obvious losers: those Iranians longing for greater democratic freedoms, many of whom have fallen into apathy as a result of the conservative stranglehold on politics and the onslaught on civil liberties and even the mildest dissent. Make no mistake: The pragmatic conservatives are not interested in women's rights or freedom of speech, and the reformists are too weak to affect these issues. 

Somewhere, Ayatollah Khamenei is smiling. Fade to black.

Afshin Molavi, a former Tehran-based journalist, is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Soul of Iran.

By Afshin Molavi