Battle for Control in Iran

In upcoming elections, extremists' hold on parliament may be broken, unleashing potential for change

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IN the latest chapter on American-Iranian hostilities, United States policy leaders are arguing over how to change Iran - even as Iran sets about to transform itself. The country's parliamentary elections on March 8 have become a struggle for the soul of post-revolutionary Iran. The likely results may produce far-reaching changes in its domestic and foreign policies.

Since the revolution, Iran's parliament has been neither static nor a rubber stamp. Although a central feature of Iran's parliamentary elections has been the manipulation of the candidate-screening process to discredit or eliminate rivals, each of the four parliamentary elections since 1980 has defined the nature and approach of the government.

Clerics and liberals were shoved aside in 1984; left-wing radicals asserted themselves in 1988 at the height of the Iran-Iraq war; and right-wing social extremists have dominated the parliament since 1992. These social extremists frustrated President Ali Rafsanjani's reform agenda by banning satellite dishes, restoring ruinous subsidies, toughening restrictions on publishers, and even encouraging vigilante groups to enforce their version of Islamic propriety in dress and speech.

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A new battle for control of Iran's parliament came to the fore on Jan. 18, when an extraordinary group of 16 top Iranian executive branch ministers and vice presidents, calling themselves the ''Civil Servants for Construction,'' issued a long manifesto demanding greater competence, specialization, and reform in the next parliament. The G-16 particularly enraged parliament's social extremists by proclaiming that ''it was with Rafsanjani [as Speaker during the 1980s] that this parliament started its magnificent growth, and with his departure [in 1989] the glory of this institution came to an end.''

In reply, on Jan. 22, 150 parliamentarians signed a letter to Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, demanding an investigation of ''probable abuses of state facilities by public officials'' and an apology for ''insulting'' the post-Rafsanjani parliament. Unfazed, Rafsanjani's minister of justice parried the threat by announcing that investigations of abuses in the legislative and judicial branches also were pending.

Sanctioned dogfight

To the chagrin of the extremists, Ali Khamenei saw nothing wrong with the G-16 communique and instead sanctioned an open dogfight in the March 8 elections. As a budding political movement, the self-styled Servants for Construction are circulating lists of technocratically oriented candidates for the entire country. The social conservatives are clearly on the defensive and are badly organized in terms of substance and tactics. Former Intelligence Minister Mohammad Reyshahri has formed many of them into a group calling itself ''Defenders of the Values of the Islamic Revolution.'' Running the ultimate negative campaign, the social extremists' strategy has thus far focused on tarring the Servants of Construction as ''un-Islamic.''

Although several smaller political groups, from liberals to leftists, have also reemerged in the current elections, key figures in each of these groups have predicted that the Servants of Construction will defeat the social extremists. Faced with this prospect, on Feb. 12 current Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri warned his loyalists in the parliament that ''a group of technocrats are poised to do away with the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, drop Iranian opposition to the peace process between Arabs and Israelis, go along with the American peace plan for Bosnia ... and turn Iran into another South Korea.''

Foreign-policy possibilities

If the parliamentary stranglehold of the extremists is broken, then Iran may indeed have a greater capacity to craft foreign-policy solutions to external problems that have hindered its internal-development potential. Seen in this light, the recent US-Iran agreement to provide $61.8 million to families of the victims on the airliner shot down by the US cruiser Vincennes in 1988 suggests greater possibilities. Though the Clinton administration insists that the settlement represents no change in US containment policy, the agreement constitutes both American recognition of a mistaken past action and Iranian willingness to accept restitution on an issue of great symbolic importance to that country.

With a more pragmatic leadership in Iran, additional creative opportunities should emerge on issues of greatest concern to the US. It remains to be seen how a more unified, pragmatic leadership will craft internally palatable policies to pull back from ''being more Palestinian than the Palestinians,'' or to rescind the death sentence and bounty against author Salman Rushdie.

Beyond their implications for Iran's legislature, Iran's upcoming elections provide a primary test of the strength of contenders for the Iranian presidential elections of 1997, when President Rafsanjani is constitutionally mandated to step down. Speaker Nateq-Nouri had previously been touted as the likely successor to Rafsanjani, but the results of the upcoming elections may improve the prospects for several technocratic and nonclerical rivals.

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