The opening of Iran’s eighth Majlis (parliament) in late-May started a fresh chapter in the country’s political history that will end with presidential elections in May 2009. It is likely to be a tough year for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It is already possible to detect the broad themes that will influence the elections. The first is the continuing fragmentation of the conservative bloc, the United Principalist Front (UPF), between supporters and critics of Ahmadinejad.

Political offensives

But it is also clear there will be more political offensives by the government against its opponents.

The fragmentation within the UPF means the Majlis will be more willing to stand up to Ahmadinejad. Those elected to the commanding positions of speaker and deputy speaker confirm this.

Ali Larijani, former lead negotiator on Tehran’s nuclear programme and a well-known critic of Ahmadinejad, was elected as speaker, defeating Gholamali Haddadadel, the previous speaker.

During the seventh Majlis, Haddadadel was increasingly criticised for being too close to the president. After the parliamentary election, he attempted to distance himself from Ahmadinejad by squabbling publicly with him. This failed to convince most UPF deputies.

The elections to the deputy speakerships were similar. Mohammad Reza Bahonar, first deputy speaker and a well-known supporter of the government in the previous Majlis, stood for re-election. In the closing weeks of the old Majlis, he also criticised Ahmadinejad in the hope of changing his reputation.

The majority of UPF deputies did not accept this political volte-face either. He failed to obtain the votes necessary for the first deputy speaker position and became the second deputy speaker.

Ahmadinejad, faced with a growing chorus of criticism, is searching for scapegoats. In late-April, he claimed an economic ‘mafia’ was sabotaging his economic policies. He also claims to be in contact with the Hidden Imam, a key figure in Shia Islam, and is implementing his policies.

Conservative clerics have taken offence at such remarks. For many, the concept of the Hidden Imam should not be associated with everyday politicking.

“Ahmadinejad should not have said that,” says Ayatollah Mehdi Kani, secretary of the Society of Militant Clergy. “By doing so, he can darken the people’s view of the Hidden Imam.”

The Office of the Supreme Leader, usually a strong supporter of the president, issued a directive that, without mentioning any names, stated the goal of those claiming links with the Hidden Imam was the “blemishing of the sacred goals of Islam”.

Ahmadinejad’s supporters have launched campaigns behind the scenes against some critical clerics, including Mohammad Qoroori, spokesman for the powerful Association of Qom Religious Teachers, and Gholamreza Mesbahi Moqqadam, speaker for the Society of Militant Clergy and a member of the Majlis’ committee on the economy.

But critics continue to speak out. In early June, influential conservative Ayatollah Shirazi blamed government mismanagement for the deteriorating economic situation.

These political struggles are taking place with the upcoming presidential elections looming large. The Ahmadinejad camp, aware of its declining political fortunes, has two major goals.

Conservative threat

One is preventing the emergence of an alternative conservative candidate from within the UPF. Within this group, two politicians stand out: Haddadadel and Mohammad Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran.

The more immediate threat is Haddadadel, who is well known in Iran. His defeat in the race to be speaker of parliament robbed Haddadadel of a powerful platform. The president’s indirect backing for Lari_jani’s candidacy came after he decided the former nuclear negotiator represented a less immediate danger.

That Ahmadinejad was forced to choose between two of his opponents for the Majlis speakership is a telling commentary on his declining political popularity.

The other great concern of the Ahmadinejad camp is the possible candidacy of the reformist former president Mohammad Khatami. As more politicians have called for him to stand, Ahmadinejad’s conservative supporters have stepped up their attacks. They have let it be known that they are putting together a political file on Khatami, focusing on his role in the student demonstrations of July 1999 and his recent remarks about what Ayatollah Khomeini meant by the ‘export of revolution’.

While the conservatives would find blocking his candidacy pol_itically difficult, they hope they can frighten him into abandoning the race.

All the indications are that the UPF will use the new Majlis to criticise Ahmadinejad, while clerical criticisms of him will intensify, in the process forming a large conservative movement against his re-election. The Ahmadinejad era seems to be ending.