Iran's elections, though there will be a runoff round, seem to have represented a solid win for conservative supporters of Supreme Leader Khamenei and a sharp setback for President Ahmadinejad. While many in the West tend to dismiss the elections because the candidates were restricted, essentially, to the establishment elites with the opposition, even the Green opposition who were a force three years ago, out of the running. But within their own restricted parameters, they do presumably give us a metric for the relative strength of those factions who were allowed into the game. Within those limits, the long-simmering power struggle between supporters of the Supreme Leader and of Ahmadinejad seems to have been decided firmly on the Leader's side of the scales.
What, if anything, does this mean for the crisis over Iran's nuclear program and a possible Israeli and/or US attack? Juan Cole points to a recent speech by Khamenei in which he said (reiterated, really) that nuclear weapons use is against Islamic principles and again insisted Iran is not working on a weapon; Cole sees the setback for Ahmadinejad as a sign that Khamenei is asserting control and may defuse the issue. It's a useful point, though as Juan well knows this whole issue has more to do with perceptions and fears than with actual or immediate threats. I do, however, think (or perhaps "hope" would be the better word) that there is a real chance that the election results could lead to lower heat, at least for the near term.
Here's why. First of all, I think that tensions on both sides have escalated in part due to the domestic political pressures in all three players: it's an election year in the US of course, and the Parliamentary elections in Iran, just held, led to posturing by the protagonists in the power struggle there. The prsesure isn't so acute in Israel, since the next Knesset elections aren't required until 2013,but if Netanyahu feels his position is strong he may call early elections if he thinks he can strengthen his position(remember that Likud ran behind Kadima in 2009 and has had to depend on a coalition mostly to its own right).
Add to this all the rhetoric surrounding the AIPAC convention and the Netanyahu visit to Washington, which has raised the pressure: nonetheless, much of the rhetoric is ritualistic, though none the less potentially dangerous.
But remember that Ahmadinejad has done more to fuel tensions over the nuclear program than Khamenei has. When President Obama at AIPAC called Iran a Holocaust-denying country that threatened to wipe Israel off the map, he was quoting Ahmadinejad (though some say on the second point it's misquoting). Now, Ahmadinejad has no control over defense and security issues; that's always reserved to the Supreme Leader, but his rhetoric has handed weapons to those eager to launch an attack,whether in Israel or the US.
But now Ahnmadinejad seems to have been weakened in Parliament, and (one must not forget), he is term-limited and will step down next year. With no elections ahead for him, perhaps his incendiary rhetoric will be dampened a bit.
All of this is, of course, little more than a hope. The crisis has not been driven by facts, so a change in facts may or may not have any impact. But the arguments against military action given the potentially huge and unforeseeable blowbacks remain unchanged, as — so far as is known — do the doubts o the Israeli military and intelligence establishments. In any event, the Iranian electoral results do not increase the likelihood of conflict; and they might even reduce it.