TEHRAN — THE Mideast country the United States has slapped economic sanctions on for exporting terrorism is bracing for change - albeit incremental.
Iranians go to the polls today to elect a new 270-seat Majlis (parliament) amid an unholy jostling for power among the nation's Islamist leaders.
A furious debate within political and intellectual circles here has become more heated than at any time since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
Newspapers have published outspoken criticisms of government policy, while weekly magazines have covered subjects ranging from the separation of mosque and state to the alleged corruption of President Hashemi Rafsanjani's family.
"The competition is unprecedented," says Saeid Leylaz, a reporter at the daily Hamshahri newspaper and a prominent television journalist. "These are the best-fought elections in Iran's history."
Though the parliament has limited powers, these elections are the most important in Iran since 1988. The composition of the next parliament will establish Iran's legislative climate for the first years of the 21st century. And it will serve as a springboard for the 1997 presidential elections, when the Western, reform-oriented President Rafsanjani, having served two successive terms, must step down.
The main contest has pitted a group of old-style Islamist hard-liners known as the Association of Militant Clergy, led by incumbent parliamentary Speaker Ayatollah Ali Akbar Nateg-Nouri, against a Rafsanjani-backed group of economic reformists and technocrats, known as the G-6.
Economics over ideology
Over the past two years, non-ideological administrators such as the mayor of Tehran, Gholam Hussein Karbaschi, have assumed a wider role in the running of state and municipal affairs at the expense of Islamic theologians who have up to now directed much of Iran's domestic economic and social policy. Backed by President Rafsanjani, they have begun to place sound economics above religious ideology in strategic decisions.
But the introduction of economic reforms, such as a reduction in the gasoline subsidy and an experimental abandonment of the fixed exchange rate in 1994, has also sent inflation soaring to more than 50 percent a year.
As Iranians go to the polls, they have to decide whether they prefer the reformists' free-market policies, which entail higher prices as well as a more liberal social code, or the strict authoritarianism of the ruling clique of conservatives who cling to the line of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini led the overthrow of the Western-backed shah in 1979 and ruled the country with an iron fist until his death in 1989.
"It'll be a two-way fight over the economy," says one Western diplomat in Tehran. "There are no other issues."
Iranian government officials and foreign analysts agree that the results are genuinely unpredictable. "Rafsanjani is a liberal man, and he's opening up the country. But his reforms have cost a lot," says an official from Iran's Ministry of Islamic Guidance.
A vote over nuances
"Mr. Karbaschi has changed the city, but at what cost? House prices have tripled with all his new taxes," the official adds. "The poor don't like him. At the same time, they don't like the militant clergy. It's difficult to see how people will vote."
Despite the bitterness of the contest, the authorities ensured that no candidate provides a serious challenge to the status quo. Last week, the Council of Guardians, an Islamic oversight committee, disqualified about 30 percent of the 5,359 prospective candidates without explanation. Moreover, the Interior Ministry barred the opposition Freedom Movement of Iran from campaigning and subsequently raided the group's offices during a news conference, seizing journalists' film and cassettes.
"People will not be voting for or against the Islamic republic," says one European ambassador in Tehran. "They will be voting for nuances and personalities within the present system."
Some Iranians say that a good showing for the Rafsanjani-backed reformists will usher in a liberal new era in Iran. But foreign observers caution that even a parliamentary victory by moderates will not change the country overnight.
"Parliament is only one arm of government," says the diplomat. "In broad terms, Western governments want Rafsanjani's people to win. But you have to remember that even Rafsanjani is not a true moderate. He's not the sort of person who's suddenly going to embrace the Middle East peace process, for instance."
'A turning point'
Nevertheless, progressive Iranians are encouraged that the authorities have allowed such an intense political debate to surround the elections. "There is a growing trend toward liberalization now," says Saeid Leylaz. "It's an uncertain path, and problems are bound to arise at first. But technology and education are changing people so fast in Iran that there have to be political changes to match.
Indeed, the elections re-opened the debate within Iran on the nature of the Islamic system itself. "This whole period is a turning point for Iran," says one longtime foreign resident of Tehran. "The intellectuals have discussed and thrown stones on every single subject. Nothing has been left untouched. Something is changing in this country. Iran is trying to decide what kind of republic it wants to be."
Youths eye the world
A crucial factor for Iran's development will be the country's demographic structure. With half the population under the age of 20, too young to remember the excesses of the last Shah's regime, even Iranians say revolutionary rhetoric has long ceased to provide an adequate driving force. Instead, young people are flocking to study English or computer skills at the scores of private institutes opening in the major cities. Urban youths say they want more jobs, more and better consumer goods, and closer contact with the outside world.
Iranian authorities are uncertain how to react to this challenge. A major transformation of the Islamic republic will undoubtedly take years to accomplish and is likely to be accompanied by severe social stress.
At present, the ruling clique worries that an effective opposition - even one within the system - will threaten the stability of Iran's Islamic state. And ordinary Iranians worry that the deep divisions underpinning the election have only just begun to develop.
IRAN - IN BRIEF
Area: Slightly smaller than Alaska at 636,293 million sq. mi.
Climate: Mostly arid or semiarid, subtropical along Caspian seacoast
Population: 64.6 million (July 1995 est.)
Population growth rate: 2.29 percent (1995 est.)
State religion: Shiite Islam
Legal system: The 1979 Constitution codifies Islamic principles of government.
Religious leader, who has supreme power: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is commander of the armed forces, has the power to declare war, and can dismiss the president following a legislative request or a ruling of the Supreme Court.
President, who is popularly elected for a four-year term: Hashemi Rafsanjani. He is Iran's chief executive initiates legislation.
Legislature: Majlis (parliament). Voters popularly elect 270 legislators for four-year terms. The parliament acts on the president's legislation. It cannot initiate law, but it has the ability to hinder the president's plans. For example, the president must submit his budget to the parliament, and the parliament most often forces the president to change it.
Judicial branch: Supreme Court. Judges are mandated to reach verdicts based on the precedent of Islamic law.
GDP: $310 billion (1994 est.)
National product per capita: $4,720 (1994 est.)
Inflation rate: 54 percent
Unemployment rate: More than 30 percent (1994 est.)
*Voters will elect 270 members of the Majlis (parliament).
*Voting is open to all Iranians - men and women - over 18.
*On Feb. 29, the Council of Guardians, an Islamic oversight committee, approved a list of 3,231 candidates out of 5,359 nominated. Some were eliminated for being illiterate, morally degenerate, or for political reasons.
*An individual can vote for 30 candidates.
Sources: CIA Fact Book and Political Handbook of the World 1995-1996.