The current membership of the Assembly of Experts protects Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from criticism -- hence the name "Supreme Leader." If more moderate members are elected to the Assembly, Khamenei's preeminence could be jeopardized.
"The upcoming elections can have a very significant impact in defining Iran's political landscape," Hadi Ghaemi, an Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, told IPS.
"On the one hand, the conservatives want to capitalize on their electoral wins in the 2004 parliamentary elections and the 2005 presidential election to consolidate their hold on power. On the other hand, persecution and prosecution of activists and civil society actors under the [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad government could very well cause a significant drop in the number of voters," he said.
"Such an outcome would greatly diminish Ahmadinejad's position and it would be interpreted as a vote of no-confidence in his government. It would also demonstrate that Iranians do not believe the election process is fair or that it could have any meaningful bearings on their daily lives," he added.
Attempts by the Iranian government to control the vote are hardly covert. Just last week, Mojtaba Samare, the right hand of President Ahmadinejad, was named deputy of political affairs at the Interior Ministry. The appointment means that none other than Samare will be the official responsible for overseeing the polls, and his presence in the ministry has worried political activists both inside and outside of Iran.
Samare is so close to Ahmadinejad that he was sent to meet directly with French President Jacques Chirac to discuss Iran's nuclear program last month. It is even rumoured that when the call to prayer is sounded, Ahmadinejad prays behind Samare.
Samare is also very close to Ayatollah Mehbah, Ahmadinejad's mentor, who is a candidate for the Assembly of Experts and has ambitions to be its chief.
"The conservatives feel confident about their chances both in the Assembly of Experts election and the Tehran city council election," Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told IPS. "Turnout is generally lower for these elections, and low turnout tends to benefit conservatives."
"Elections for the Assembly of Experts or Tehran city council do not inspire the same political passions among the reformists' main constituency -- youth and women -- as compared to the presidential and parliamentary elections," he added. "Whereas hardliner conservatives can always be counted on to mobilise at least 15 to 20 percent of the electorate."
Sadjapour, who has written widely on Iranian society and politics, its nuclear program, Iran-Iraq relations, and U.S.-Iran relations, says that despite their recent electoral triumphs, conservatives still feel a need to clamp down on civil society and freedom of speech. "They are obviously not secure about their popular mandate," he said.
Starting in 1987 during the administration of President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, city councils and municipalities have become wealthy and powerful players on the national scene, overshadowing even political parties as the most important backers of candidates for parliament and the presidency.
Conservatives in Iran believe that the party which controls the municipality is the party most likely to capture both the city council and the government. They have the upper hand this time, since they control the Guardian Council, and it is the Guardian Council which is in charge of qualifying or disqualifying candidates for all elections.
The Guardian Council is comprized of influential clerics and lawmakers. Half of its members are appointed by the Supreme Leader and the other half by the Parliament, both of which are conservative.
When Mohammad Khatami was running for the presidency of Iran in 1997, his supporters were marginalized and could not support him financially. Khatami won the election anyway -- and owed his victory in large part to the support of Gholahossein Karbaschi, the powerful mayor of Tehran.
The current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also happened to be the mayor of Tehran before coming to office in June 2005.
The city council election has become critical in building the political landscape of Iran. Conservatives who control semi-democratic institutions such as Parliament and non-democratic institutions such as the Revolutionary Guard and Guardian Council will strongly resist losing their seats.
In July, the government's spokesman, Gholam Hussein Elham, announced that journalists who criticized the regime would be prosecuted. Just two months later, on Sep. 11, the most prominent pro-reformist newspaper, Shargh, was shut down. Soon after, the Nameh Monthly, owned by secular critics and intellectuals, was also shut down.
Shargh's closure was particularly significant. The paper was close to the former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the most powerful cleric-politicians in Iran. It so happens that Rafsanjani is running for reelection to the Assembly of Experts in the upcoming election. It appears that his power is diminishing as the fundamentalist and military-backed politicians like Ahmadinejad are gaining power.
Also this year security agents forced prominent scholar Ramin Jahanbeglou, who was jailed in July, to confess that he had conspired to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
Even reformist MPs are not safe. Just last week Ali Akbar Mosavi Khoieniha, the former MP who has been jailed since his Jul. 30 arrest following a public protest in Tehran against laws that discriminate against women, announced at his father's funeral that he was tortured and held in solitary confinement.
"His hands and feet were chained for more than two weeks and he was tortured. He was interrogated four times a day, during the daytime and also after midnight. They forced him to incriminate himself," one of Mosavi's friends told IPS.
Such actions against social and political activists are designed to intimidate civil society. And many say the repression has gotten worse since Washington announced in April that it would spend $75 million "to reach out to the Iranian people" and finance groups critical of the regime.
On Sept. 23, Golam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, Iran's Minister of Intelligence, explained at a press conference that Iranian youth, students and journalists were influential members of society whose thoughts were taken seriously by the enemies of the Islamic Republic led by the United States.
"According to U.S. officials, NGOs and institutions that enjoy public support and trust, and the empowering of individuals by training them with Islamic credentials and a Muslim image, are the targets for which this fund has been set up to confront Iran," Mohseni Ejei said.
Shortly after the U.S. approved the 75-million-dollar fund, the office of Iran's most prominent student group, Takkim Vadat, was shut down and their influential and popular news website stopped working.
Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and civil society activist. He has won several awards, including Human Rights Watch's highest honour in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award
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Albion Monitor October
3, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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