Iran\'s conservative Islamic hierarchy has been seeking to portray the coming parliamentary elections as an enviable model of Middle East democracy and an inspiration for the Arab Spring revolts.
But a likely boycott by Iran\'s harshly silenced reformists and fears of election-related violence, combined with dire economic problems arising from Iran\'s isolation over its suspect nuclear program, are creating new challenges for Iranian leaders as they face their first domestic legitimacy test since the disputed presidential election of 2009.
Despite assertions by the leaders that reformist candidates will be allowed to participate in the parliamentary elections, to be held in March, the two principal reformist opposition figures in Iran, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both former presidential candidates, remained under house arrest for most of 2011, their supporters say, and both are urging followers to stay away from the polls.
Even Iran\'s mildly reform-minded former president, Mohammad Khatami, who has not been treated as harshly by the government, said in December that reformist candidates would not run in the March elections. That would create a glaring gap that could prove worrisome in providing the appearance of a choice of candidates, and undermine the quest for legitimacy.
\"It was expected that the conditions would be granted so that the reformists could participate in the elections, but the conditions were not met,\" Mr. Khatami was quoted as saying in Iranian news accounts.
The issue is important because Iran\'s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his hard-line subordinates have sought to portray their country as the true genesis of the Arab Spring political uprisings that have convulsed many of Iran\'s neighbors. For Iran\'s reformists to publicly reject the vote, even before it happens, carries credibility risks that Iran\'s conservative leadership did not face in previous elections, analysts said.
\"The reformists have categorically denounced the legitimacy of the election,\" said Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University. \"The issue that Khamenei now faces is the legitimacy of the regime. How is he going to manufacture a parliamentary election?\"
The election has been further complicated by the severe economic pressure from the West over Iran\'s nuclear energy program, which Western powers suspect is masking Iranian plans to make nuclear weapons.
While Iran\'s nuclear independence is a popular domestic position that cuts across political lines, the painful economic results of Western sanctions are hurting Iranians -- and risk widespread voter discontent -- by causing increased shortages, unemployment and inflation. Iran\'s currency, the rial, has plunged in value against the dollar in recent months and on Monday hit a new all-time low.
\"This is not a good time for the Iran government to lack popularity,\" said Alireza Nader, an expert on Iran in the Washington office of the RAND Corporation, a research group.
The government has responded to the sanctions with a combination of military muscle-flexing, defiance and diplomatic overtures. In recent days, the Iranians have held naval war games, threatened to close vital Persian Gulf oil shipping lanes, test-fired two new missiles and announced the production of their first nuclear-fuel rod. At the same time, confronting a new punitive measure signed into law over the weekend by President Obama that could effectively choke Iranian oil sales, the Tehran leadership has said it wants to reopen talks on the nuclear issue.
Iran\'s top police commander, mindful of the mayhem that shook the country after the 2009 presidential election, which the defeated reformists thought they had won, has warned that security forces will crush any effort by \"the enemy and their domestic lines\" to cause trouble.
The commander, Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam, a confidant of Ayatollah Khamenei, has also expressed his expectation that the only winners would, by definition, be \"those who believe in the regime and have the trust of the public.\"
Ayatollah Khamenei lost considerable credibility in the 2009 presidential election when he declared it a crime to challenge the suspiciously lopsided results that re-elected his choice, the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For the ayatollah, the March election must show -- or be made to show -- that he is still a revered and unchallenged authority, Iranian political historians and analysts said.
\"The regime is very concerned that the election will not appear legitimate,\" Mr. Nader said. \"There is a good chance that the upcoming parliamentary election can become another occasion for a mass demonstration, or that lots of Iranians will choose not to participate.\"
For many disaffected Iranians, the electoral system is already stacked against a significant choice of candidates for the 275-seat Majlis, or Parliament. Those who wish to run for office must register with a religious oversight authority known as the Guardian Council, which decides who is eligible. The registration phase, which began Dec. 24, ended Friday, and the Guardian Council is expected to release its final list of approved candidates in late January or early February. The government announced Friday that more than 3,000 applicants had asked to be considered.
\"The regime wants to pretend it\'s business as usual and everyone is taking part,\" said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University. \"The game plan is to entice some of the more conservative elements of the reformists to take part, so they can say, \'You see?\' \"
Mr. Boroujerdi also said that the election could serve as a dress rehearsal for the next presidential election, scheduled to be held in 2013, and that it will offer insights into how Iranians feel by whether they even bother to vote. \"This is going to speak volumes about the configurations of various forces,\" he said. \"That makes it quite important.\"
Others said the candidate vetting process and March vote would offer insights into whether supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has had a falling-out with Ayatollah Khamenei since the 2009 election, will be denied eligibility to run, a move that would give the ayatollah unquestioned control of the final makeup of Parliament.
There has been speculation that Ayatollah Khamenei may propose to the next Parliament that the office of the president be abolished, to be replaced by a system in which lawmakers select a prime minister -- a suggestion that the ayatollah made last year. \"They are playing with the idea of doing away with the whole game of a presidential election,\" Mr. Dabashi said. \"Khamenei may use this occasion to implement that possibility.\"
Source - The New York Times.