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Conservative victory in Iran? Look again

The recent elections in Iran have been widely interpreted as a victory for conservative forces and a boost for hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. How could a two-thirds majority in the Majlis for conservatives be interpreted any other way?

But journalists often do not look carefully enough – and the electoral situation in Iran, in particular, is so impenetrable that it is all too easy to misinterpret. An election that seemed to indicate gains for conservatives was actually, when you look a bit deeper, quite encouraging for reformists.

For a start, the Guardian Council banned 1,700 potential reformist candidates from standing, including most of the more popular figures. Despite this the number of reformists MPs actually increased.

What's more, once the key reformists had been excluded, the main battle in the election campaign was between two wings of the conservative establishment: the 'moderate' right (well, it's all relative!) and the extreme right that supports Ahmadinejad. The moderates effectively won the argument, making significant gains. Notable among them was Ali Larijani, who in October last year resigned as Iran's negotiator with the international community on the nuclear issue because he disagreed with the President. Larijani stood for Parliament in the religious capital of Qom against hardline conservatives associated with Ahmadinejad and won a landslide victory (76%). Larijani could even end up as the new Speaker of the Majlis – and if that happened he could prove to be a major thorn in the President's side.

The manoeuvrings have already begun for the presidential election next year. One straw in the wind is that former President Rafsanjani – often seen as embodying the moderate conservative line – has been saying things to student audiences such as 'humankind goes toward democracy and freedom, and public opinion can not be imprisoned' and that in the age of communications 'censorship is pointless'. Given Rafsanjani's track record, these kinds of sentiments are pretty bizarre, but they are pretty telling – it's pretty clear he knows that the current clampdown on dissent cannot continue indefinitely.

One intriguing possibility is that Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the former Ayatollah and a war hero in his own right, might end up standing for President in 2009 on a reformist ticket (let the Guardian Council try to exclude him!).

For a more in-depth analysis of the political situation in Iran, read the excellent piece on openDemocracy by Nasrin Alavi, who helped me put together the March 2007 NI issue on Iran, at http://tinyurl.com/yozxpb

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