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Iran's coming presidential election may help redefine the country

As Iran approaches its March 20/21 new year celebration, the country shuts down for a two week holiday then awakens to a final two and a half months of a steadily intensifying presidential election.

Since president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election, three major political factions have become apparent within Iran’s electoral system: two conservative groups, and one reformist group. President Ahmadinejad’s last electoral victory clearly delineated a rising conservative group and a political policy that has shaken Iran’s three decades old post-revolution state system.

Ahmadinejad won the Islamic Republic of Iran’s sixth presidency in 2005, and has been the first non-cleric elected to the post since that country’s revolution. Prominent opposition politicians and political analysts have complained or commented on the president’s effective use of military institutions to influence the election. It is widely believed that leading figures and groups within the military mobilized the massive number of reservists to vote for Ahmadinejad after endorsing him as their favoured candidate. This signals the full entry of the military into the political realm, and has been a direct leverage against the previously uncontested power of the elite clergy in defining the political landscape.

In return, Ahmadinejad appears to have showed favour to the military, by maintaining and expanding its capacity to conduct legitimate and underground business ventures. It is believed that the military has expanded its role in Iran’s grey economy, playing a significant role in the export markets outside of the government’s purview. This may well explain the few conflicts that have existed between the president and the traditional business leaders of Iran, the bazaaris. The leadership of the bazaaris have, for much of the 20th and 21st centuries supported the clergy in its rise to power, so this has not only undermined the bazaaris’ business influence but threatens to erode some of the economic influence of the clergy.

Though the supreme leader, the country’s top cleric, has formal and direct authority over the military, Ahmadinejad’s close alliance with military leaders appears to have greatly increased the power of the presidency in this realm under his leadership.

Iran’s election in June, depending on who wins, may serve not only to elect the next president, but also define the momentum of political currents in favour of the military’s growing political capacity, retaining clerical supremacy, or, seemingly the least likely outcome, of encouraging a reform process first popularized under the previous president, Mohammad Khatami.

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