TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran’s newly elected parliament is packed with conservatives, but hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not assured of an easy ride in the run-up to next year’s presidential race.
His re-election chances look bright judging by the unusually outspoken support he has won from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for his truculent nuclear stance.
But Ahmadinejad, 51, has powerful rivals inside the broad conservative camp that swept to victory in Friday’s election. They are likely to seize on popular discontent with the economy and roaring inflation to serve their own presidential ambitions.
The outcome, however, will not have a direct impact on nuclear, oil and foreign policies, which all ultimately rest in the hands of Khamenei, not the president or parliament, under the Islamic Republic’s system of clerical rule.
“I don’t think the system would withdraw support from Ahmadinejad, but you have to expect strong competition among conservatives for the presidential election. That means a lot of conflict between the president and parliament,” said Majid Zamani, a conservative commentator.
“This election is not going to help Ahmadinejad,” he added.
Conservatives, who will dominate the new parliament, share with Ahmadinejad the label of “principlists” for their loyalty to the Islamic Republic’s ideals. But they are not united and some analysts say the president’s core support has shrunk.
Some conservatives have criticized the president’s economic policies, blamed for pushing inflation up to 19 percent.
A few, like former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani who won a seat in Iran’s clerical city of Qom, have also queried whether his verbally combative style is helping Tehran’s nuclear case at the U.N. Security Council, which passed three sets of sanctions.
The West fears Iran wants atomic bombs. Tehran denies this.
Final results of the election have yet to be announced, but the shape of the new parliament is clear.
More moderate conservatives may even team up with Ahmadinejad’s staunch reformist opponents, who have retained 40 or so seats in the 290-seat assembly although many of their candidates were barred from the race.
“You could have some conservatives making a coalition with the reformists and making it difficult for the president to pass his bills,” said an Iranian analyst who asked not to be named.
Even in the outgoing parliament, controlled by a faction that mostly backed Ahmadinejad’s 2005 presidential campaign, criticism mounted when he used bulldozer tactics like scrapping a nationwide budget body to secure more control of spending.
“The moderate conservatives are going to gain more momentum,” said Seyed Mohammad Hossein Adeli, head of an Iranian think-tank, adding that the election could reduce Ahmadinejad’s core base in parliament from two-thirds to a quarter of seats.
That might suit Khamenei. The supreme leader, who usually keeps out of day-to-day politics, has publicly praised Ahmadinejad for his uncompromising nuclear stance and told Iranians shortly before Friday’s vote to back the government.
But the 68-year-old Khamenei has proved adept during nearly two decades in office at balancing disparate forces, even if he has tended to side with conservatives. Rivalries tend to bolster his authority as the ultimate arbiter, analysts say.
The election has potentially given Khamenei more control over parliament. “He will have the president in a position where he cannot really act independently,” said the Iranian analyst.
The analyst said the vote indicated another trend: the rising political and economic influence of a class with military roots at the expense of the traditionally dominant clerics.
Khamenei has built support in the Revolutionary Guards, an ideological force fiercely loyal to the Islamic Republic’s values, and the Basij militia under its command, analysts say.
The Iranian analyst estimated the new parliament may have 120 members with a Guards or military background, up from 80 to 90 in the outgoing assembly. Ahmadinejad is an ex-Guard, like several of his conservative rivals.
“It is clear that this majlis (parliament) is very reduced in terms of the clerical influence,” the analyst said.
Clerics in Qom may have backed Larijani in part because, as an ex-member of the Guards from a clerical family, he could act as a bridge between the military and clergy, he added.
Others say Larijani’s victory shows clerics are wary of Ahmadinejad’s politics, even though the ex-nuclear negotiator is “moderate” only in comparison with the radical president.
“It means that religious traditionalists and clergy and the clerical establishment in Qom do not follow the hardliners,” said Hamidreza Jaleiepour, a university professor.
Larijani is seen as a possible contender to succeed Gholamali Haddadel as parliamentary speaker. If Larijani gets the job, that could make Ahmadinejad’s life tougher still.
But Haddadadel may have a trump card in any competition for the influential post. He is related by marriage to Khamenei.