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Iran Elections: A Litmus Test for Ahmadinejad?

Voters in Iran go to the polls on Friday to choose a new parliament. The elections will pit conservative factions against one another for the body's 290 seats because many liberal reformist candidates have been disqualified from running.

Unlike some other countries in the Middle East, Iran has elections for parliament and president, and some room is allowed for political debate and discussion.

But the Islamic clerics of the Guardian Council, who have the power to disqualify candidates, have used their authority to rid the electoral field of most reformists in Friday's elections for the Majlis, or parliament. The Guardian Council rejected some 1,700 candidates, including some of the better-known leaders of Iran's reformist movement.

Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman, a former U.S. defense official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the disqualifications were targeted. "The factions, essentially, are factions among the Shi'ite clerical leadership and Revolutionary Guard under the supreme leader. This will be the most restrictive election by far for the Majlis," says Cordesman. "Only candidates who are conservative -- and very, very conservative -- are being allowed to run. Many, many people are being excluded who were allowed to run in the past."

The Economy

Nevertheless, the Majlis elections are still significant, says Hooshang Amirahmadi, President of the American-Iranian Council, a non-profit group dedicated to improving U.S.-Iranian relations. "The Majlis elections are always important. This is among the most important institutions in the Islamic Republic [of Iran]," says Amirahmadi. "It is the true peoples' institution. Even if it is an institution that is fully controlled by the vetting process of the Guardian Council, still the parliament remains the most important democratic institution that the country has."

Many analysts originally said these elections would be a referendum on the policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected on a populist platform in 2005 and is himself up for re-election next year.

Despite record oil prices, and therefore revenues for Iran, the country's economy is performing poorly. Officially, inflation is at 17 percent. But independent Western estimates put it much higher. And most analysts say, President Ahmadinejad has spent much of his political energy sharply denouncing the United States and Europe over Iran's nuclear program.

But with reformists sidelined, the choices offered to Iranian voters in Friday's elections are primarily from one narrow end of the political spectrum.

Few Choices

Kenneth Katzman, an Iran analyst with the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, says the fight will pit Mr. Ahmadinejad's conservative supporters against other, slightly less conservative forces. "The two camps fighting are 'the purists,' I call them, basically Ahmadinejad types -- [they] very much believe in sacrifice, in defying the West, even it hurts the economy, [they] very much believe in the original principles of the Islamic Revolution as set down by Ayatollah Khomenei," says Katzman. "And then you have, what I would call, moderate conservatives. These are not reformists. They are part of the conservative camp, so to speak. But they are somewhat less combative with the international community."

A telephone survey of Iranian voters by a U.S.-based bi-partisan group called Terror Free Tomorrow, which has been polling inside Iran since 2004, shows widespread voter apathy about these elections. Ken Ballen, the group's president, says voters are unhappy about their choices. "What it tells us about the elections is that the Iranian people are not inspired by the choices that they have been offered to vote for," says Ballen. "We asked people whom they intended to vote for. A third said they would vote for neither reformists nor conservatives. And only eight percent said they would vote for conservatives, 22 percent for reformers."

2009: A Pivotal Year?

According to the survey, Iranian voters would also like to directly elect the supreme leader -- the country's top position. But even though the economy is in trouble, voters have voiced backing for President Ahmadinejad's economic policies. Analysts say if that trend holds through Friday, it could bode well for Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is expected to run for re-election next year.

At a recent conference on Iran, scholar Gary Sick of Columbia University said that 2009 might be a pivotal year in U.S.-Iranian relations, especially as dialogue with Iran has become an issue in this year's U.S. presidential campaign.

"That is a new sign. I have not heard people talk about that in public before and it suggests that maybe our domestic politics are at a point that would actually permit that to happen," says Sick. "As a result, I think that the year 2009 is likely to be a really fascinating moment because we are going to have a new president and Iran has a presidential election in that same spring. And I am going to be very interested to see how that plays out."

The Congressional Research Service's Ken Katzman agrees that such an opening could occur, but only if pro-Ahmadinejad candidates are defeated on Friday. "We could have a breakthrough in Iran, where Ahmadinejad, pro-Ahmadinejad candidates lose big, and Ahmadinejad is essentially a lame duck and maybe either does not run in 2009 or runs, but is clearly going to lose," says Katzman. "By the same token, we could have here in the United States somebody elected who believes in engagement, in which case the outcome of the Iranian elections is all that more important."

Analysts add that how well President Ahmadinejad's faction does in the Majlis elections could signal how hard a stance Iran will take in future dealings with the U.S. and Europe on its nuclear ambitions.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.