TEHRAN — Iran has begun gearing up for elections that will represent a showdown between two establishment factions that just three years ago formed a united front against the opposition Green Movement.
In parliamentary elections March 2, supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will face off against an alliance of hard-line clerics, Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders and bazaar merchants who had been instrumental in keeping Ahmadinejad in power before they turned against him.
Both groups are striving for a majority in a parliament that can either obstruct or speed up initiatives by Ahmadinejad’s government. While the two factions together had formed a hugely influential bloc, monopolizing all major centers of power, a disagreement over the firing of the country’s intelligence chief last spring caused a final breakup after months of tension. Now clerics and commanders are accusing Ahmadinejad’s advisers of plotting to push them from power and reduce the role of Islam in the country.
The Ahmadinejad opponents swear fealty to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei’s own role is less clear: He had seemed to withdraw support for Ahmadinejad, but has not fully backed the president’s opponents, either.
“He is trying to balance both groups in order to prevent the fight from endangering the Islamic republic,” said one prominent politician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The two sides have lately been engaged in bitter, public disputes, calling each other “tumors,” “sorcerers” and “thieves.” Some of Ahmadinejad’s advisers have been arrested by the judiciary — which is linked to his opponents — and influential religious leaders have called for the death of the president’s closest aide.
While both factions claim ownership of the 1979 Islamic revolution and its ideals, Ahmadinejad supporters say they are a new generation that wants to root out corruption caused by the old. “People power” is an important theme in their public statements.
“Faced with the will of the people and the revolution, [the opponents] are nothing,” said Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an unofficial spokesman for the president who is head of the Islamic Republic News Agency.
Ahmadinejad’s opponents, who have spent decades in key positions, accuse the president’s supporters of destroying Iran’s economy. They say a greater role for Islam is a solution to Iran’s problems.
“We must push forward with making everything more Islamic — the society, the economy, everything,” said Hamid Reza Taraghi, spokesman for the Islamic Engineers party, a group of merchants that plays a key role in the faction opposed to Ahmadinejad.
The clerics, commanders and merchants feel that in order to rein in Ahmadinejad’s power, they need to keep their majority in parliament after the March elections. This way, they hope, Ahmadinejad will slowly fade into oblivion once his term ends in 2013.
For the president, parliament could be a tool for extending his influence beyond that date.
The clash between the two powerful factions takes place against a backdrop of growing worries over Iran’s currency, the rial, which has fallen to record lows against the dollar this week. Also, a $2.6 billion embezzlement case involving bankers and top politicians has added to widespread cynicism among voters.
In Iran’s presidential election in 2009, Ahmadinejad’s disputed victory brought tens of thousands of protesters to the streets in the most serious challenge in decades to the country’s establishment. The demonstrators — dubbed the Green Movement — were largely peaceful, but a crackdown by security forces left dozens dead, hundreds wounded and thousands arrested. Opposition politicians, dissidents and journalists were convicted in televised mass trials.
While discontent has seemingly grown among those who protested in 2009, Iran’s Green Movement has largely remained silent throughout the Arab uprisings of the past year. The movement’s cause has been overshadowed by the fighting within the Iranian establishment, and because its leaders are in jail, under house arrest or barred from competing in the elections, the movement’s backers have no one to support in March.
Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders have warned that “seditionists” — their word for the Green Movement — will try to disrupt the elections with protests. The Guard contends that the Green Movement was created by the United States and the West, and commanders have said they will be on high alert — particularly in Tehran.
Other preparations for the elections are also underway.
On Friday, state television lauded the thousands of would-be candidates who registered for pre-selection by a council of appointed Shiite clerics and jurists. The council will decide this month who is allowed to run.
Officials have predicted with confidence that participation in the vote will be over 60 percent. The elections will show the world that “Iran’s religious democracy is widely supported by its people,” a TV presenter said.
But in reality, anxiety in Iran is high — particularly among educated Iranians living in the cities who worry the country has become economically adrift and globally isolated. The establishment has dismissed such concerns.
“Those living in Tehran are only occupied with money,” said Taraghi, the spokesman for the Islamic Engineers party, which opposes the president. “But in the villages, men can buy complete sheep. Sometimes they have more luxury cars than donkeys. Iranians are positive about their future.”
Ahmadinejad’s backers claim that the president is responsible for such prosperity.
When Ahmadinejad in December 2010 took the bold step of reforming Iran’s bloated subsidy system, he started paying nearly the entire population about $40 per person. Outside the cities, where people have large families, such amounts have a big impact.
“The people love the government — they feel it belongs to them,” said Javanfekr, who was nearly arrested in November and was roughed up by security forces linked to Ahmadinejad opponents.
Not everyone is so sanguine. Some think the elections will only remind Iranians of their distress over the country’s direction.
“The fact is that the conditions are not right for elections at this moment,” said Ali Shakori-Rad, one of the few influential politicians calling for fundamental change who has not been imprisoned. “There is a feeling of hopelessness. But those in charge are afraid if they give in to one change, everything will collapse.”
Special correspondent Ramtin Rastin contributed to this report.