Iranians have gone to the polls to elect a new parliament in the first nationwide vote since the disputed 2009 reelection of President Ahmadinejad. But analysts agree that no vital political change will ensue.
The West was watching Iran closely as the nation's over 48 million eligible voters headed to the ballot box to vote for a new Islamic Consultative Assembly. It was the first election since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed victory sparked months of violent street protests in 2009.
This time, though, the regime "dramatically escalated" a crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the elections, Amnesty International said earlier this week. Security forces have been arresting lawyers, students and journalists and targeting electronic media. The regime has successfully suppressed the main opposition groups, including the once-powerful Green Movement. Its leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest for more than a year.
But politicians are paying little attention to those issues actually worrying voters: the economic hardships they are forced to endure under high inflation and western sanctions, as well as Iran's increasing international isolation. Instead, analysts agree that this election is about infighting among the conservatives in Iran.
"This election is a glimpse of just how bad the blood is between the various conservative factions," Rouzbeh Parsi from the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) in Paris told DW. "It used to be the conservatives versus the reformists and now it's the conservatives against each other. The only thing they ever had in common was that they didn't like the reformists."
Ali Ansari from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland said the clerical establishment was struggling to even get a high voter turnout. In addition to opposition politicians, some conservative groups were also boycotting these elections altogether.
"This is political theater; it's like Monty Python," Ansari told DW.
A total of 3,444 candidates are vying for 290 seats in the Assembly. For the regime, this election was about "demonstrating its legitimacy," said Yasmin Alem, an independent analyst on Iran and the author of "Duality by Design: the Iranian Electoral System" published last year.
"Any sign of weakness is suicide for the regime," Alem told DW. "The Islamic Republic interprets voter participation in Iran as the people's renewal of allegiance with the regime."
But the outcome of Friday's elections will have "no dramatic effect" on the country's major policies, said Ansari, who is also founding director of St. Andrews' Institute for Iranian Studies. Iran's political infighting has simply created a lot of noise without making any fundamental changes in how the country is ruled. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the protectors of the ruling system remain as strong as ever. They alone control the country's nuclear policy.
"Foreign policy is not decided in parliament," Alem said. "So these elections will not have a direct impact in this respect."
Though the West still favors economic sanctions as the best tool to rein in Iran's disputed nuclear program, Israel says a military strike could be necessary if Tehran refuses to ease its defiance. This saber-rattling between Israel and Iran will also be a key issue when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington next week.
But according to Parsi, the US is not keen on a military strike against Iran - especially not with presidential elections coming up in November. And President Barack Obama knows it would be a foreign policy disaster for him should Israel decide to strike.
"The US is doing its utmost to keep Israel at bay," Parsi said. "The window is between now and November." However, Israel's red line was much more strict and uncompromising than that of the US, he added. According to Alem, an Israeli strike on Iran would have a "catastrophic effect" and would not end Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"The institutional knowledge is there, so an attack would only cause a delay and embolden the regime to get the bomb as soon as possible," Alem said.
Economy is decisive
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this week that the Obama administration was moving swiftly to impose tough new sanctions on Iran.
"What we are intending to do is to ratchet up these sanctions as hard and fast as we can, follow what's going on inside Iran, which seems to be a lot of economic pressures that we think does have an impact on decision-making," Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
And analysts agreed that should political change occur, it would happen for economic reasons. There is no doubt that the economy is being put under immense pressure and hurting the Iranian population. In a way it was ironic that the US and its allies were giving Khamenei a possibility to externalize these economic problems and claim that the Iranian nation was under attack from hostile foreign forces, rather than definitively changing from within.
"People find it mind boggling that these sanctions are hitting those the hardest who could actually rise up against the regime," Parsi said.
According to Ansari, the catalyst would be economic and force the governing elite to move on the nuclear issue and sanctions. However, the problem had become so vast and there was so much distrust on all sides that it posed a very difficult situation for Khamenei.
"For Khamenei to make a move, he will have to think outside of the box, but he is stuck in this tunnel vision," Ansari said. One option would be to follow the style of the charismatic late Ayatollah Khomeini. When he announced to Iranians the 1988 ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war, he said that he himself would drink from the "poisoned chalice," promising a full explanation in the future - which he never presented before his death less than a year later.
Khamenei, however, "probably lacks the charisma to pull it off," Ansari said. If the West were to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear policy, it would mean the end of Khamenei, he said.
No Arab Revolution in Iran
Ansari said there could be no talk of a "revolution" in Iran. Certainly, young Iranians have not been oblivious to the events in the Arab world and the revolutions that brought about political change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
"One should never rule out that people will start walking," Parsi said - though this is unlikely. He said there was a major difference between Iran and these Arab nations in transition.
"Even though the majority of Iranians never experienced a revolution personally, there is still the collective memory of the 1979 revolution," he said. "They know that you can't just want to get rid of the old system without knowing what should replace it. Look what they got instead."
Friday's parliamentary elections will allow the Supreme Leader to consolidate his grip on power and sideline the president even more. Also, it will help set the political scene for Iran's 2013 presidential election, when Ahmadinejad's term limit expires. Will he choose Iran's new international face, or is he politically spent? Regardless, his successor will not necessarily change the situation for Iran's policies - and there has even been talk of abolishing the presidency altogether, instead moving to a parliamentary system.
Iran has a two-round voting system for parliamentary elections. The final results are expected in April.
Author: Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Rob Mudge