The final results of Iran's parliamentary elections will not be known until April, as 65 seats in 33 constituencies are to go to a run-off, but enough results have been declared for a pattern to emerge. A faction loyal to the country's lifelong Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is expected to win up to three quarters of the 290 places in the assembly or Majlis; President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who is supported by another faction, will be under considerable pressure for the remainder of his term, which ends in 2013. The Majlis has more power than many other national parliaments in the region, as it can set budgets and advise the government on foreign affairs and national security. It will now be substantially strengthened by the fact that the final say on all state matters in the Iranian theocracy still rests with Ayatollah Khamenei, who has been vali-e-faqih since June 1989. One immediate possibility is that Mr. Ahmedinejad's foreign policy statements could well become less confrontational, even if his civil nuclear policy — on which there is broad consensus within conservative and nationalist circles — remains unchanged.

The elections, nevertheless, give rise to other problems. The final result will be questionable, because a body called the Guardian Council, which is appointed by the Supreme Leader and has to approve all candidates, disqualified 36 per cent of the 5,395 people who tried to stand; international rights groups say many of its decisions were arbitrary. Opposition parties also decided not to take part, because they have no access to the media, and many of their leaders, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are imprisoned or under house arrest. These are among the consequences of the 2009 presidential poll, which was followed by long and violent repression of protests by reformist parties and members of the public over alleged rigging which gave Mr. Ahmedinejad a landslide victory. As for the current election, the official turnout of 64 per cent cannot be independently verified. Furthermore, even though the choice has been between two conservative factions, no decisive economic vision is being offered to the electorate while unemployment rises and western sanctions are starting to affect all, including the professional and upper classes. Iran is far too important — and the evolving situation in the region far too volatile — to be governed in this manner. As the clouds of confrontation with the U.S. and its allies gather, Iran's rulers need to realise their country would be stronger and more secure if it were to have the sort of genuinely representative democracy its people deserve as of right.