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Iran is gearing up for elections and it isn't pretty

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The international focus may be on Iran's nuclear program and all the war talk that's surrounded it. But less noticed is that Iran is gearing up for parliamentary elections in March. Every early sign is that it will be as closely controlled an affair as the 2009 presidential contest that kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power for a second term.

Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may have called Mr. Ahmadinejad's landslide victory a "divine assessment." But forces other than God probably had a hand in Ahmadinejad's victory; there was strong evidence of widespread fraud, which sparked protests on a scale not seen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

While those protests have since been quashed, the grievances behind them remain. If anything, they have gathered in strength, with an economy suffering blows from US-led international sanctions and ongoing crackdowns against citizens. The smart money is on a parliamentary election whose results are massaged, much as the presidential elections were. But even fixed results will still show shifts in Iran's complex political landscape.

All of this matters because Iran isn't the religious dictatorship that the West imagines. A democracy? Hardly. But there are factions within the elite, and powerful forces in broader society that have influence. Supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's power may be vast, and in theory stems from him being an emissary of God on earth, but in practice he has to bow to more prosaic concerns. There has been persistent speculation throughout the year that Ayatollah Khamenei is fed up with Mr. Ahmadinejad's obsession with end-times millenarian beliefs, representing just one of the fissures on the right in Iran.


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