This week there has been a sudden bandwagon of comment that the Supreme Leader is the only man in town when it comes to Iranian politics. Consider, for example, this summary on Friday from Alistair Lyon of Reuters, "Iran's Ahmadinejad, Reviled Abroad, Fades at Home":
Ultimate power, however, remains with Khamenei.
"Iran has become a one-party system: the party of Khamenei," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment. "The most important qualification for aspiring members of parliament is obsequiousness to the Supreme Leader."
Ahmadinejad may pay the price for failing to conform to this rule in a March 2 election expected to erode his support in Parliament.
Lyon's evaluation followed that of Parisa Hafezi, Reuters' bureau chief in Tehran, who reported a week earlier, "Loyalists of Iran's supreme leader, who is implacably hostile to the West and its drive to curb Tehran's nuclear work, look set to triumph in Iran's parliamentary poll at the expense of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a contest among hardliners."
So that's it, then? Not just the elections but all the political conflict of the last three years has been a show, with Ayatollah Khamenei sitting comfortably in power the entire time?
Not quite. I suspect Lyon's assessment, if not Hafezi's, has a lot to do with timing. The Supreme Leader has had a leading role in this week's tensions between Iran and the "West", making a defiant speech to nuclear scientists. And whenever temperatures rise, it is far easier to go for the simple answer --- one leader, one Islamic Republic poised for confrontation --- than to ponder over complexity.
Compare the forthright assertions of Lyon and Hafezi to the assessment of Najmeh Bozorgmehr, the Tehran correspondent of the Financial Times:
Despite their campaigns being carried out in secrecy, the Iranian government has been able to help Ahmadi-Nejad loyalists prepare for the election, analysts claim. Under Iranian law, the government cannot provide financial or logistical help for election hopefuls. Mr Javanfekr denies the government does so.
But political observers claim an election team affiliated to the president started to identify and finance loyalists some time ago. This team, they say, has focused on small constituencies and rural areas where the president enjoys strong support. This low-profile yet organised approach could help the supporters of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad run as independent candidates and win a considerable number of the 290 parliamentary seats, analysts say.
We went to one of our own analysts with the list of more than 3400 approved candidates for next Friday's Parliamentary election, and here is what he returned to us:
Most of the well-known candidates are for the United Front of Principlists or the common candidates of both the United Front and the (pro-Ahmadinejad) Resistance Front. After that, the remaining wellk-known candidates are those of the Resistance Front.
Now, what is very surprising and clear that there are many independent candidates who are unknown. These unknown candidates might be indeed independent OR some of them might be the anonymous supporters of the President's Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai and are backed by the "deviant current" [the label applied to Ahmadinejad's inner circle]. This is what some of the principlists, such as MPs Ahmad Tavakoli, Ali Motahari, and Ali Abbaspour have claimed. I agree about some of these "independent" candidates, especially when I look at the candidate list in Tehran, Qom, and Yazd.
Although, these independent candidates might not get much of the vote in the large cities, they are likely to get vote in the small cities and in particular the border cities. This possibility seems more likely when you look at the recent stances and remarks of Ahmadinejad. On the one hand, he says we don not take any side in the election and do not support any candidate officially, but on the other, he talks about his election plans in a meeting with 6000 young advisors and all his administration staff.
Does this mean that the President will spring a surprise next week as he did in his 2009 re-election --- only this time, he will be triumphing over the Supreme Leader rather than Mir Hossein Mousavi and the Green Movement? To predict that would be just as suspect as pronouncing that "Iran has become a one-party system".
The narrative of Khamenei v. the US is convenient for reporters facing a deadline and the story-line of the nuclear showdown. However, Iranian politics since 2009 has been sometimes vicious, often messy, and far from straightforward. That is unlikely to change next Friday.