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Next year’s parliamentary elections in Iran have intensified infighting among its conservative elites amid moves by the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader to tighten control of the political system, a panel of Iran specialists concluded at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on Nov. 18.

Next year’s parliamentary elections in Iran have intensified infighting among its conservative elites amid moves by the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader to tighten control of the political system, a panel of Iran specialists concluded at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on Nov. 18.

The March 2012 parliamentary elections will be the first national-scale contest since the disputed presidential election of 2009 and the ensuing mass protests demanding the removal of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad known as the Green Movement. Next year’s legislative elections could see “the supreme leader’s systematic effort to consolidate power,” particularly to “subordinate conservatives” to his will, said Daniel Brumberg, a Middle East politics expert and a senior advisor in USIP’s Center for Conflict Management. But the success of that effort is not a foregone conclusion, as some conservatives may resist a further closing of the Iranian political system to any form of competition.

Iran’s supreme leader is not the elected president but rather a Shiite religious figure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has held the post since 1989. Ahmadinejad has worked to undercut the role of the parliament, known as the Majlis, in its legislative, budgetary and oversight roles. Ahmadinejad enjoyed Khamenei’s strong support for many years. But Ahmadinejad’s moves to carve out a more independent and powerful role seem to have run afoul of the supreme leader, and Khamenei supporters in parliament and elsewhere have been emboldened to challenge Ahmadinejad on key issues, such as excluding Ahmadinejad’s allies from what is expected to be the leading conservative bloc in the upcoming elections.

Iran’s internal political struggles are also taking place against a backdrop of economic weakness, driven in part by the growing international pressure and sanctions against Iran for its failure to account for and suspend nuclear fuel production and suspected nuclear weapons activities.

The next presidential election will take place in March 2013, though tensions within the regime have led to speculation that Khamenei has considered eliminating the office of the presidency—a prospect some of the panelists consider unlikely. “The Iranian political system remains very vibrant and very factionalized and very difficult to predict,” said Brumberg.

The significance of the parliamentary contests is seen in the pace of negotiating and horse-trading over which candidates will be part of the leading conservative bloc, said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran expert and political scientist at Syracuse University. Boroujerdi, who spoke on a Skype connection, said the regime is “trying to bring some order to the chaos of factional fighting.”

Another panelist, Yasmin Alem, agreed that the parliamentary elections are used as an “institutional mechanism” to control factionalism. Iran’s appointed Council of Guardians has increasingly relied on “systematic disqualifications” of reformers and others outside the system by closing legal loopholes for candidacies and making candidate criteria more stringent, and it has manipulated the certification of electoral results, she said. The intent is “to ensure that only those who are really loyal to the supreme leader…are permitted into the parliament,” according to Alem, an independent analyst and author of Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System.

Farideh Farhi, an independent political scientist and Iran expert, noted that despite the banning of reformist parties, not all reformers have been purged from parliament or silenced. She said about 30 reformers remain in a parliamentary faction of their own, which can draw on the support of perhaps another 30 deputies.

The fights among conservative players are “about pure power,” she said, and are energized by a “closing of the circle” of those deemed to be reliable supporters of the supreme leader. Said Farhi, “We have entered a period where the most aggressive parts of the Islamic Republic are fighting each other.”

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