Iranians Cast Their Votes
Tehran-Iranians vote for a new parliament Friday in elections that have generated little enthusiasm here but could impact Iran's presidential balloting next year. Conservatives will almost certainly retain a majority in the 290-seat legislature because of widespread disqualification of prominent reformists by a clerical body, the Guardian Council. Yet that majority is expected to be more critical than the incumbent legislature of the economic policies of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Under the Iranian system, most powers reside with a senior cleric, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad has served the leader, in the view of political analysts here, by aggressively promoting Iran's nuclear program. But the president's inflationary economic policies-doling out handouts to the poor while failing to attract job-generating investment-are turning into a liability for the regime.
"The next parliament will be more loyal to Khamenei and more critical of Ahmadinejad," says Saeed Laylaz, a prominent reformist and former deputy interior minister in the cabinet of Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.
Laylaz thinks Ahmadinejad will run for a second term in 2009 because "his main assignment is the nuclear program." Since Ahmadinejad's election in 2005, Iran has accelerated efforts to enrich uranium-a program Iran insists is for peaceful purposes but that could give it the capacity to build a bomb.
Others think Khamenei will cast Ahmadinejad aside. One regime insider, who asked not to be identified, said Khamenei will anoint another conservative to run for president in 2009, perhaps the current speaker of parliament, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, whose daughter is married to Khamenei's son.
"Ahmadinejad is like a balloon," this insider said. "He will not explode but will slowly deflate."
Meanwhile, the regime has tried to drum up participation in the parliamentary elections by claiming that the Bush administration does not want Iranians to vote, to demonstrate the unpopularity of the Iranian political system.
That argument resonates with Mahnoz Chatrfirouzeh, 28, the public relations manager for a cultural center. She will vote, she says, because otherwise nothing will change. "We should not expect others to come and teach us democracy," she said. "We prefer to make decisions by ourselves."
Other Iranians say they will sleep in on Friday and ignore what they regard as a charade. "I want the whole system to change," said one young mother, also named Mahnoz, pointing to the obligatory scarf covering her frosted hair.
The U.S. election appears to be generating more enthusiasm. Iranian newspapers are full of articles about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
An Iranian academic said he preferred McCain because Republicans-George W. Bush excluded-have historically been interested in closer ties with Iran.
A college student said he also wanted McCain to win but for the opposite reason. "McCain will put pressure on the Iranian government to change its ways," the young man said.
Others view Obama as a better choice, suggesting that the election of a member of a U.S. minority would appeal to a regime that sees itself as the victim of oppression and double standards.
Clinton, too, has fans in Tehran.
"I'd love Hillary to be president," said Mohammad Atrianfar, a veteran publisher of reformist newspapers. "When her husband was president, you had a good image all over the world and spoke with good words to Iran. Hillary would be the same."
Barbara Slavin is senior diplomatic reporter at USA Today on leave as a Jennings Randolph fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (St. Martin's Press, 2007).