Loyalists of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were big winners in the recent parliamentary elections. With many reformists locked out of the electoral process, the contests were primarily between different factions in the conservative camp. In this election analysis, VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports that the Iranian president could still face some rough times ahead as the presidential election looms on the horizon.
For many Iran watchers, the key question is why, despite high inflation, rising prices and gasoline rationing, Iranian voters seemed reluctant to blame President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for their economic woes.
With most of the prominent reformists blocked from competing, the parliamentary elections turned into a contest of conservative factions. Those Ahmadinejad loyalists, who call themselves principalists, squared off against more pragmatic conservatives who have been critical of the Ahmadinejad economic policies. The Ahmadinejad camp won the largest share of seats in the Majlis, or parliament.
The final balance of power in the Majlis will not be known until a runoff election in May.
Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor at Rutgers University and president of the American-IranianCouncil, says President Ahmadinejad successfully shifted blame for Iran's economic woes elsewhere.
"To my surprise they also blame the outside world," Amirahmadi said. "They blame sanctions. Ahmadinejad has obviously been successful to some extent in transferring the blame to the U.N., to the U.S., to Europe. Although they [the Iranians] say the sanctions are not effective, they do blame inflation on the outside [world]."
Iran has been sanctioned for its alleged ambitions to be a nuclear weapons power. Iran denies the charge.
The United States and European nations have denounced the elections as unfree and unfair.
In an interview with VOA's Persian News Network, President Bush says he is not surprised that Iranian politicians tried to shift the blame for Iran's economic woes.
"Any time a government is failing to meet the needs of people - or a lot of times, not any time - but a lot of times governments have failed to meet the needs of their people, particularly in relatively non-transparent, non-free societies they always look for somebody to blame," he said. "And I'm not surprised that the leaders would blame the United States for the problems they themselves have created."
Ken Katzman, an Iran analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says President Ahmadinejad, who campaigned on a populist platform in the last presidential election in 2005, retains a loyal base in the rural areas.
"What I think that many in the West, including maybe myself, felt was that because his economic policies were not that successful, the voters would make him pay," Katzman said. "But the rural voters seem to like the fact that he is at least paying attention to their concerns. He visits, he gets petitions, he at least surveys with his own eyes what the rural voter is facing. And inflation is maybe not that much of a big deal to the rural voters because maybe they can get more for their farm products."
Analysts say the conservative pragmatists still won enough seats to make life difficult for the president in the Majlis and to challenge him in next year's presidential election.
Hooshang Amirahmadi, who was in Iran just before the elections, says he would not bet against Mr. Ahmadinejad at this point, although, he adds, what happens in U.S.-Iranian relations will affect the political dynamic in Tehran.
"A year from now, God knows," Amirahmadi said. "Iran is a land of surprises and all kinds of things can happen. And I think U.S.-Iran relations can have a serious impact on the way things go. If, God forbid, there is a military move against Iran in the next seven, eight months or a year, I can almost 100 percent assure you that people like Ahmadinejad will stay in power and even become stronger."
Katzman adds that those reformists who were allowed to run did comparatively well, and could still emerge as a political force next year.
"After Ahmadinejad won in '05, the reformists were basically prostrate," he said. "They were just in complete and utter disarray, holding conferences, hand-wringing about what went wrong, etcetera. Now they at least seem to found some sea legs. They're regrouping, they're trying to get organized. And I think to count them out would be a mistake."
The Iranian presidential election is expected to be held in June 2009 or shortly thereafter.