Centrists Could Derail Ahmadinejad

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Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran's conservatives have won more than 70% of the seats in the 290-seat parliament, known as the Majlis. That was a foregone conclusion after hard-line bodies such as the Guardian Council once again barred the bulk of reformist candidates from the March 14 election. Still, the balloting may eventually prove an unlikely turning point in Iran's domestic politics, as well as in Tehran's nearly 30-year cold war with Washington.

The respectable showing by pragmatic conservatives, and their growing coordination with the reformists — who opted to participate rather than boycott the polls, despite the odds being stacked against them — suggests that the country could be poised to move past President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's politics of confrontation. Tehran Mayor Mohammed Qalibaf, a possible Ahmadinejad opponent in next year's presidential election, says a centrist Third Wave is taking shape and it will push a moderate, pragmatic agenda. "Our people are tired of extremism and the exaggerations of the factions on the right and the left, and generally of factionalism altogether," he said in a TIME interview.

The still-loose alliance, whose strength in parliament will not be known until a runoff election in May, seeks to capitalize on Ahmadinejad's failures to doom his prospects for reelection next year. The populist President's chicken-in-every pot domestic policies have driven up unemployment as well as inflation. His abrasive foreign policy has isolated Iran from the West, bringing economic sanctions and discouraging badly needed foreign investment. Ahmadinejad's foes have become increasingly bold about rebuking him for his brash style. "An Iranian proverb says a single enemy is too many and a thousand friends are not enough," former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rouhani chided in a Tehran newspaper interview in October. "If all the countries of the world were with us it would not be enough, while a single country against us is too many."

The centrist alliance, intended to end a decade of volatile shifts that alternately favored reformists and then hard-liners, is being enouraged by other heavyweights such as former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, and ex-Speaker Mehdi Karroubi. It could prove unwieldy, however, given the past rivalry between pragmatic conservatives and reformists, and their differences on issues such as democratization. Yet, if it holds, this alliance could prove to be a significant factor in next year's presidential election.

Another potential presidential contender is Ali Larijani, who captured a Majlis seat with a landslide victory in a district in the holy city of Qom. A pragamtic conservative, Larijani resigned as Iran's nuclear negotiator last year after several public clashes over policy with Ahmadinejad — Larijani had reportedly agreed to a temporary freeze of Iran's uranium-enrichment program as a good-faith gesture in talks with Western countries; a stalemate in those negotiations led the U.N. Security Council to impose three rounds of sanctions on Iran.

Like Larijani, Qalibaf was also an unsuccessful hopeful against Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential contest. But he indicates that the victories of many pragmatic conservatives as well as some reformists in the parliamentary election have given the centrist Third Wave a boost. "The extremist people of both currents will be eliminated, and the Majlis will move toward moderation, reason and pragmatism," he said in the TIME interview.

Qalibaf indirectly criticized Ahmadinejad's handling of Iran's nuclear negotiations, saying, "We must abstain from unnecessary rhetoric. We need to proceed with reason and with a more suitable rhetoric." That approach is why many Iranian analysts believe the victory of a pragmatic conservative politician over Ahmadinejad next year could have a positive effect on Iran's relations with the international community. "While the pragmatic conservatives drive a hard bargain on the nuclear issue, they drive a bargain nevertheless," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council in Washington. "The Ahmadinejad crowd, on the other hand, seems to have little faith in the utility of diplomacy, and is more interested in presenting the U.S. with a fait accompli."

Certainly, 2009 is shaping up as a crucial year in U.S.-Iranian relations. The two countries have been sliding in the direction of a dangerous confrontation, with Ahmadinejad refusing to halt Iran's uranium-enrichment program and the Bush Administration keeping open the option of a preemptive military strike to destroy Iran's potential for producing nuclear weapons. But the possibility is growing that next year, both countries will inaugurate new Presidents capable of a more conciliatory approach.

For his part, Qalibaf is joining the ranks of Iranian politicians who signal a readiness to turn the page. Noting that Iran recognized the government produced by U.S.-organized elections in Iraq, Qalibaf said, "I think in fact that Iran and the U.S. have many common interests in the regionů our position in the region should not be one of opposition, but friendly competition with other powers." If the U.S. accepted Iran's Islamic regime, he added, "Many opportunities will open for both of us." That's fine talk, but the world waits to see whether Iran's politicians can follow up such words with deeds.

With reporting by Nahid Siamdoust/Tehran