President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his thorough trouncing, was the headliner of Iran's midterm elections last week. But while much attention, and glee, has been focused on the president and his defeat, there appears to be a more preponderant, slower moving back-story to the vote: a potential tectonic shift in a real center of power-the Assembly of Experts and, by association, the selection of the next Supreme Leader and in turn the Guardian Council.
In the elections for city council, which vote on cities' mayors, Ahmadinejad fared poorly across Iran and, most significantly in Tehran, a bellwether indicator for the country. In Tehran, Ahmadinejad's opponents took a clear majority of the seats and, by electing the next mayor of Tehran, will select an important player in Iranian national politics. The election clearly signals a weakening of support for Ahmadinejad after less than two years in office, but as tempting as it may be for the West to attribute that to a backlash against Ahmadinejad's "inquest" into the Holocaust, lambasting of the United States and Israel, etc., the souring of public sentiment is more connected to local, pragmatic concerns.
Ahmadinejad ran on a populist platform of economic reform: better services for the poor, job creation, and the reining in of corruption. He has delivered little except for talk. The poor are still poor; the rich are getting richer and corruption is still rampant. Iranians clearly want better economic performance and with more widespread benefits for the poor, the base for Ahmadinejad's political support. Ahmadinejad now apparently risks losing re-election to one of his principal opponents, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf-whose supporters did very well in the elections.
Tehran's population is over 20 percent of the national population and the mayor is in a position to nurture a strong, grassroots base of support for national office, as Ahmadinejad did. The direct supporters of the current mayor, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, took the largest block of seats (7 out of 15), followed by the broad coalition of reformers (5), supporters of the reform platform of the former president, Mohammad Khatami. The poor performance of the supporters of Ahmadinejad in Tehran was largely duplicated elsewhere in city council elections around the country.
Also importantly, the so-called reform movement has risen from the ashes in this round of voting and may coalesce behind an insider next time, such as former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, with more on the potential significance of that below.
But the city council results mean very little for Iran's regional and foreign policies. For all the attention on Ahmadinejad's already storied tenure, presidential powers are limited. The Supreme Leader-who has his own key advisors, including senior clerics, security officials and former senior government officials-makes all the major decisions and a few unelected, behind-the-scene officials wield more real power than does the president. In fact, the once very popular Khatami recognized and digested the limitations of his powers and stopped short of confronting the Guardian Council, and thus the Supreme Leader.
While many in the West rightly abhor and fulminate about Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, they forget that rhetoric is not always supported by real power. The Supreme Leader could change Ahmadinejad's policies and rhetoric in one brief meeting. Although the council elections do signal the prospects for presidential contenders, the president does not control important domestic and foreign policies in Iran.
The midterm election results on the Assembly of Experts, where the tenure lasts eight years, were much more important in terms of future policies. And in Tehran, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani drew the most votes for the assembly. To understand the significance of those results, Iran's post-revolutionary electoral system needs brief elaboration.
The elected Assembly of Experts appoints the Supreme leader, to whom most of the power is entrusted. So the current assembly would be most significant if the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, could no longer serve over the next eight years.
The Assembly of Experts also meets about twice per year behind closed doors and monitors the activities of the Supreme Leader but does not intervene in the day-to-day affairs of state. To be a candidate in Iran for elected positions-such as the Assembly of Experts, president and city council-an individual must be vetted by the Guardian Council, a twelve-person body, half appointed by the Supreme Leader and half elected by parliament. Also, the laws passed by parliament are subject to the Guardian Council's approval.
Many commentators rightly observe the limitations of such an election and governance procedure, but the Guardian Council does not black ball any single group from standing for office; it largely reflects the broad wishes of the Supreme Leader, makes judgments on an individual's qualification for office, as opposed to a political group's qualification, and tries to preserve electoral legitimacy by ensuring all groups are at least reasonably represented. And once the candidate list has been established, the actual voting is quite transparent. Iran's system may be flawed, but it is superior to any other system in the entire Middle East region, with the exception of Israel.
But back to Hashemi. He had been all but discarded by pundits after his miserable performance in the previous presidential and parliamentary elections. The general citizenry, and especially the reformists, saw him as a practical and unprincipled politician. But after the do-nothing two terms of the once popular Mohammad Khatami, even the reformists realized that Hashemi can get more done than the likes of a Khatami, who had limited relations with the less than ten individuals who wield real power in Iran and had therefore little ability to maneuver in Iran's dangerous political landscape. Ironically Mr. Hashemi, with all his negatives for the reformers, could become the only viable candidate who could rally and invigorate the reformists into action for the next elections. While the election may have propelled Qalibaf and Hashemi to the forefront of the next presidential elections, Hashemi may have his sights set higher.
Contrary to Western media, the Supreme Leader is both personally and politically close to Hashemi. In fact, the Supreme Leader largely owes his position to Mr. Hashemi. If the Supreme Leader cannot carry out his duties, becomes otherwise incapacitated or resigns from office over the next eight years, Hashemi, as the behind the scenes confidant and friend of the Supreme Leader and the big vote getter from Tehran for the Assembly of Experts, is now in the catbird's seat to be the next Supreme Leader. If Hashemi is appointed to this all-powerful position, then Iran's policies will change-and more than they have at any time since the Iranian Revolution. Although Hashemi wears a cleric's robe, he is the consummate practical politician whose ambition is to completely re-integrate Iran into the global political and economic system, with the mullahs in charge. With Hashemi in a position of real power, everything will be open for negotiation. In the meantime, Hashemi has been bolstered by his support in the assembly, whereas Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, Mahmoud Taghi Mesbah-Zadeh, was trounced by Hashemi but still managed to secure a seat on the assembly.
Hossein Askari is Iran professor of International Business and International Affairs at George Washington University.