Endgame?

The forces of reform and conservatism in Iran clash again, perhaps irrevocably.

Tue Feb. 3, 2004 4:00 AM EST

Iran is at the brink -- but of what? Hard-line repression or revolution? It's hard to believe that things will ever be quite the same in the Islamic republic after the current standoff between the forces of reform and tradition.

Iran’s largest pro-reform party, the Participation Front, said it would boycott the February 20th elections because the Guardian Council, an un-elected, hard-line clerical body that oversees the political system, refused to reinstate all of the 3,600 pro-reform candidates it had blacklisted -- even after more than 40 per cent of the Iranian parliament resigned in protest.

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Where is this going? It could be that Iran’s reformist forces finally wield power; more likely, though, religious conservatives will clamp down and consolidate their grip.

Part of the trouble is that the Iranian public are disillusioned, having seen the reformist candidates they voted into office virtually powerless to effect change. Like many Americans, they register their disgust by staying away from the polls. In the last Iranian elections (about a year ago, for local councils), only about 10-15% of Iranians voted, handing religious conservatives an easy victory.

President Khatami, the early focus of reformist hopes, was first voted into office in 1997 and reelected in 2001. Since then, he and the majority reformist parliament have tried to pass progressive laws, but have been repeatedly rebuffed by the Council of Guardians. One parliamentarian said of the Council’s attempt to disqualify candidates, "They want to cover the ugly body of dictatorship with the beautiful dress of democracy". The Economist reports:

"The parliament has passed some remarkably enlightened laws in recent years: to liberalise the press; to sign United Nations conventions outlawing torture and sex discrimination; to expand trial by jury; and to stop the police from storming the universities, which are a main base for pro-reform movements. But the Council of Guardians has spiked every one."

One Iranian columnist, Ahmad Sadri, sums up what many Iranians feel: they are chafing under theocratic rule and are bitterly disappointed with the reformists' performance:

"The real news is that the Iranian reformers put on a grand show of defying the widely hated Islamic troglodytes and Iranians didn't care.The majority of Iranians didn't care about the spectacle of the reformist resistance on the floor of their parliament because they had no confidence in a movement that had once embodied their political aspirations. The reform mint had lost its luster and much of its currency when Iranians went to the polls in 2001 to reelect a do-nothing reform president."

In fact, so low is popular interest in Iranian politics that the Council of Guardians may not have needed to remove the reformist names from the ballot; low voter turnout would anyway have most likely resulted in a win for the religious right. They were simply covering their bases. The Iranian Interior Minister has called for a postponing of the February elections, on the grounds that they should not proceed if they can’t be "free, fair, and competitive." The Council of Guardians has thus rejected this call.

Analysts now say that only Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- who has the final say in all matters political as well as spiritual -- can defuse what is shaping up as one of the country's worst political crises.

Of course, the outcome in Iran will have a large effect on world opinion, particularly U.S. opinion:. This from a January 30 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"If the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has any regard for citizens' rights in his Islamic republic, he will halt the attempt by anti-democratic hard-liners to corrupt the next round of parliamentary elections … Khamenei, the nation's ultimate authority, has gone through the motions of promoting a compromise, ordering the Guardian Council to reconsider its controversial disqualifications. That seems to be a sham -- a foot-dragging exercise resulting in few restorations of candidacies and no real change in the strategy of subverting electoral democracy.The ayatollah should be reminded that the world sees what is going on and will not respect his theocracy for denying Iranians a minimal degree of control over their currently harried lives."

Perhaps one of the worst prospects for the reform movement is another small turnout like the last elections. Alex Vatanka, a country risk analyst with the Jane's Defense group of publications, said:

"As you have now seen, the elections that are about to be held are already pretty much discredited -- the worst-case scenario as far as democracy in Iran is concerned. The way I look at it is, if you have a similar situation as you had with the local elections [last year], that would be bad for the evolution of reform in Iran because that would pretty much put everything in the hands of the conservatives."

Students, who are largely pro-reform, are a powerful force in Iran, and they may play a role in all this as well. Two-thirds of the population is under 30 and the minimum voting age is 15. So far they have kept out of the conflict, but a demonstration may be in the works.

One Iranian political observer told the Christian Science Monitor that a decisive crisis is brewing:

"Now [politics] is so completely polarized. [The conservatives are] happy and singing, because they think they will soon control the [parliament], and the presidency after that, in elections for 2005.The conservative strategy before was to drive a wedge among the reformists, to tame the opposition. Now the attitude is absolutist and heavy handed."

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