The recent first round of the Iranian elections somewhat resembled the rise to power of the promising Mohammed Khatami first time round in 1999. But despite the break from apathy seen over recent elections, the liveliness does not bode anywhere near the same promise that Khatami managed to swirl up six years ago. There's been discouraging controversy and intrigue surrounding the running of the main reformist candidate Mostafa Moin and the last minute participation of Hashemi Rafsanjani also brought zest to the process. Rafsanjani is tipped to win however simply because most people believe he holds the most sway over the country's real ruler, the supreme Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who shows no signs of letting go of his power.
Political lethargy is rife in Iran and turns into cynicism at election times. But despite people's disappointment with politics, the country is heading for tough times, both economically and politically. Outside observers say that the closest the population is likely to get to civil disobedience is by staying away from the polls. Which is likely the scenario that's going to prevail on election day, or 'fate day' as the incumbent rulers are televising the elections in a bid to reinvigorate the political landscape they have managed to successfully stifle for the last two terms of Khatami's rule.
Whether there's life in the old dog yet remains to be seen still. Politics and daily life have started to diverge beyond what's been seen since the 1979 overthrow of the Shah. For ordinary Iranians, the country's economy is the biggest worry and any attempts made to kickstart job creation efforts are followed with eagle eyes by the young population which has a high umemployment rate.
Iran's economy outside oil is extremely weak and despite high oil prices, which pay for half the country's spending, finances are in turmoil. Official estimates showed recently that the economy is now down 1.9% on the previous fiscal year ended March. Growth of 4.8% has been achieved in 2004/2005, compared to the previous year's 6.7%.
Iran is the second most important player in the Organization of Oil Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC) and has around 10 percent of the world's proven oil reserves as well as the world's second largest natural gas reserves. The recent high oil prices have boosted its oil revenues, which make up some 90% of its total exports and just under half the country's public expenditure.
The departure of Mohammad Khatami, who has ruled the country for two successive eras and can't stay on for a third term because the constitution does not allow this, is a bummer for many. Khatami himself is tired and a living advertisement for boycotting the polls, say observers. The hardline rulers, who convene in the so called Guardian Council have shown who's boss in a vigorous way during his reign and anyone fit to step in his shoes won't easily be envied as the conservatives on the council are sworn to continue their conservative ways.
The very fact that the election contest is dominated by Rafsanjani highlights to many the undeniable reality that there simply is no way anyone with new ideas can tackle the Khamenei's faction. Over the last decade, Khamenei, the mullahs' supreme leader, systematically has created a situation in which all rival politicians are sidelined in the Majlis (parliament), both through the Guardians Council and through suspected political killings, which took place during the previous presidency of Rasanjani.
Rafsanjani's not expected to show the same resistance to the Council's stranglehold as Khatami did when he set out in 1999. The way Khatami's enthusiastic spirit was crunched by the hardliners in the Council led to illusionist politics that were no more than a sham, some say. The Council's recent dealings with Mr Moin show that they have no plans to discontinue this style of governing.
Whoever wins the elections is still likely to end up a puppet on a string, pulled by Khamenei and the other conservatives. The outcome of the elections is likely a win for Rafsanjani. Mr Moin's ratings haven't been overwhelming and he's not been able to shed the dull image attached to him, Mohammed Ghalibaf, the former police officer that's running on behalf of the conservatives, is likely to score little too. Other hardliners Ali Larijani, Mahmud Ahmadi Nejad and Mohsen Rezai. The only moderate aside from Rafsanjani and Moin is the former parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi, who's not believed to be very popular despite his strong criticism of the Guardian Council for bein unfair to the politicians who have 'done nothing but honestly serve the country'.
Whoever wins, Iran's new president is unlikely to have much influence over the country's main direction. Issues like the nuclear program and the economy are largely decided by the conservative establishment.
American intelligence, self-professed wobbly, indicates that the supreme leader is the only person in the country that decides on the nuclear issue. Official US Iran data dates back to 2001, but it is being updated and a new report by the National Intelligence Council, a CIA branch, is expected this spring. The CIA director Porter J. Goss said in a speech recently however that the CIA takes the spokesman of Iran's Supreme Council for National Security very serious, who publicly announced that Iran would never scrap its nuclear program on many occasions.
The CIA also believes that previous comments by Iranian officials, including Iran's Supreme Leader and the Foreign Minister, have indicated that Iran would not give up its ability to enrich uranium. "Certainly they can use it to produce fuel for power reactors. We are more concerned about the dual-use nature of the technology that could also be used to achieve a nuclear weapon", said Goss.
The CIA chief also expressed concern over the so called controversial 'black box' invention that made news headlines a few months ago. Goss said that this indicates that Iran in parallel with its nuclear program, continues its pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles, such as an improved version of its 1,300 km range Shahab-3 MRBM, to add to the hundreds of short-range SCUD missiles it already has.
Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer based in Amsterdam. She runs http://www.contentClix.com and writes international news analysis, arts reviews, and New Economy articles.