There’s a Persian saying used to describe an under-the-radar political effort: “Driving at night with the lights off.” Allies of embattled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be doing just that as they campaign in Iran’s hinterlands in hopes of scoring a comeback in next month’s parliamentary elections.
The voting March 2 should - momentarily, at least - shift attention from Iran’s international standoffs over its nuclear program back to the country’s internal power plays: the ruling system striking back against perceived runaway ambitions by Ahmadinejad and his inner circle.
The battles were Iran’s top political spectator sport just six months ago before being eclipsed by the latest faceoff with the West, including tougher sanctions and widening speculation of a possible Israeli military strike on nuclear facilities. The elections now offer Ahmadinejad – who’s been generally sidelined in the nuclear policymaking - a chance to reclaim some political ground after being smacked hard by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for openly challenging his authority.
Ahmadinejad’s supporters are favoring stealth tactics for the first nationwide vote in Iran since the chaos after the disputed presidential outcome in June 2009.
They’ve turned from Tehran and other big cities - and away from direct competition with rivals loyal to Khamenei - to focus on far-flung and poorer regions of the country. It’s here that Ahmadinejad can deploy his most powerful tool: access to government funds that are currently awash in Iranian rials because of an indirect benefit from sanctions.
The rial has nosedived in value while the government still brings in dollars from oil sales. This may allow Ahmadinejad’s backers to make even bolder promises of handouts and other measures to ease consumer pain with prices of imported good sharply higher as sanctions squeeze businesses.
Any new pledges would add to some $40 a month that Ahmadinejad’s government is paying to every Iranian after cutting parts of food and energy subsidies in 2010 - a significant amount for large families in impoverished areas.
A strong showing by Ahmadinejad’s camp would send a message of resilience to the ruling clerics after the messy political feuds. It also could rekindle Ahmadinejad’s hopes of getting an ally into next year’s presidential race to succeed him and possibly prolong his influence as an elder statesman. Ahmadinejad is in his second four-year term, the maximum under Iran's term limits.
“They are ‘driving with their lights off,’” said veteran lawmaker Hasan Ghafourifard, an Ahmadinejad critic. “But it’s still not clear how much support they can get.”
Even modest gains would be seen as an uptick for Ahmadinejad’s political fortunes. The current parliament - dominated by Ahmadinejad opponents and hard-line Khamenei loyalists - is bearing down hard.
On Tuesday, lawmakers said they would issue an order this week to bring Ahmadinejad for questioning on alleged economic mismanagement and his spats with Khamenei. The summons was the first of its kind for an Iranian president since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Ahmadinejad had once been considered a favored son of Khamenei, who quickly endorsed the disputed 2009 election results even as protests swelled on Tehran's streets. The ties began to fray, however, as Ahmadinejad tried to expand the influence of the presidency into areas tightly controlled by the ruling theocracy, such as foreign policy and intelligence gathering.
A serious rupture occurred in April when Ahmadinejad threw a political tantrum after Khamenei’s order to reinstate the intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi, who had been dismissed by Ahmadinejad. The president boycotted Cabinet meetings for more than a week in an unprecedented show of disrespect to Iran’s leader, who hard-liners believe is answerable only to God.
Dozens of Ahmadinejad aides were arrested or driven into the political margins. Hard-line media also began to smear Ahmadinejad’s protégé, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as head of a “deviant current” that sought to undermine Islamic rule. Some critics even claimed that Mashaei conjured black magic spells to fog Ahmadinejad’s mind.
The tensions grew so bitter that Khamenei suggested that Iran could someday abandon the presidency and return to a government selected by parliament.
The upcoming elections, however, pose a dilemma for the ruling system. It has the power to vet candidates and deny anyone with even a hint of pro-Ahmadinejad sentiments. But it also is desperate to avoid a low turnout, which could raise questions about national unity with Western pressures intensifying.
Khamenei last Friday urged the Guardian Council - which must clear all candidates - to keep the field wide. At the moment, more than 3,200 names have been approved out of some 5,500 hopefuls for the 290-seat parliament. Officials have predicted up to 60 percent turnout.
Noticeably absent is any political bloc drawing inspiration from the outlawed Green Movement, which led the outrage after Ahmadinejad’s re-election, which protesters charged was rigged, and whose leaders are silenced under house arrest.
“The election is hot among political factions, but cold among the people,” said Tehran-based political analyst Sajjad Salek. “Supporters of Ahmadinejad may be defeated in major centers, but they have a chance in small cities and towns.”
Iran’s parliament has no direct ability to force policy decisions on Khamenei or the powerful forces under his control, including the Revolutionary Guard military establishment.
But parliament’s influential national security committee and other groups often help shape decisions on critical issues such as the nuclear standoff or efforts to ease the diplomatic deep freeze with the U.S. The current parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.
Davood Hermidas Bavand, a prominent political commentator in Tehran, said a political boost from the parliamentary elections could encourage Ahmadinejad to spend his last year in office trying to open channels with Washington - which many believe Ahmadinejad seeks as part of his political legacy.
But Bavand acknowledges that the president could only take small steps.
“Major decisions, like improving ties with the U.S., have to be made at a higher level,” he said.