Tables Turn on Iran's Islamic Extremists

ON April 19, voters in Iran's second round of parliamentary elections are likely to elect candidates who support extraordinary transformations inside Iran. In contrast to previous rounds, the elections for this parliament are a microcosm of pending changes in relations between clergy and the state, between elected and unelected organs within the state, and between moderation and extremism in foreign policy.

Last year, the tide of Iran's internal affairs was moving in favor of the social extremists, who controlled 150 or more seats of Iran's 270-seat parliament. They inflicted a series of stinging defeats against President Hashemi Rafsanjani and his technocratic allies. The parliament's Speaker and leader of the social extremists, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, was widely touted as Mr. Rafsanjani's successor in next year's presidential elections.

The tables have turned. The results from the first round of the elections on March 8 cast doubt on Mr. Nateq-Nouri's presidential prospects and even his speakership. Ironically, Rafsanjani's daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, has emerged as one of Nateq-Nouri's serious challengers.

The confusion in international interpretations of the first-round results mirrors the sharp partisan debate inside Iran. In terms of raw numbers, the first round produced 139 victors who each received more than the required 30 percent of the ballots cast in their respective districts. In the 30-seat Tehran district, only Nateq-Nouri and Ms. Hashemi made it on the first round. In the April 19 nationwide second round, 250 candidates will contest 125 seats.

Spokesmen and allies of the Militant Clergy Association (MCA), an umbrella group that supports Nateq-Nouri and the social extremists, proclaimed a "70 percent victory," or no change, for the fifth parliament. Yet the MCA's original list of 170 candidates performed quite poorly, according to the "simple calculations" of Vice President Ataollah Mohajerani, a key spokesman for the Servants of Construction (SC), a faction of technocrats allied to Rafsanjani that emerged Jan. 18. According to Mr. Mohajerani, only 41 MCA candidates, including 20 also on the SC lists, were elected on the first round, and only 26 additional MCA partisans made it into the second.

Bellwether Tehran

The MCA denies such defeat. A March 16 editorial in their newspaper, Resalat, criticized Mohajerani's assessment as "made in haste" and a "propaganda technique." Although Resalat denied any correspondence between Mohajerani's statements and "actual realities," no one associated with the MCA has presented specific evidence contradicting him.

One need not rely solely on Mohajerani to recognize how poorly MCA supporters did. In the trend-setting Tehran district, 11 of the top 20 vote-recipients in the first round are aligned with the SC. In stark contrast, Nateq-Nouri has to be concerned that five of his well-known supporters on the powerful governing board of the fourth parliament rank 22nd, 23rd, 27th, 31st, and 33rd in the Tehran district results. Several may not survive the second round.

In our preliminary analysis of provincial representatives elected in the first round, it appears that incumbents lost at a rate greater than 50 percent - not a good sign if your faction was the majority in the previous parliament. Likewise, a sizable number of independents outperformed those aligned with either of the two leading factions. Most of these independents are nonclerics and have more to gain by joining the SC bloc in the next parliament, since prominent SC supporters are executive officials who are able to dispense much-needed resources to the districts of these "independent" candidates.

Political earthquake

Iran's current election has irrevocably changed its political landscape. A strong momentum has grown for resurrecting independent political parties, and the SC grouping may soon formally become one. Only those with the most to lose - the controllers of the fourth parliament - remain ambivalent about the utility and Islamic propriety of political parties.

Yet even if Rafsanjani and his allies gain control over both the fifth parliament and the executive, they may not succeed so long as an unelected body, the Council of Guardians, wields a veto. If so, pressures will increase on spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to replace the clerical hard-liners in the council.

Mr. Khamenei may decide he has more to gain from working with Rafsanjani than against him, given the unprecedented debate in Iran over the future relationship between the clergy and the state. Nateq-Nouri and allies frame the debate as pitting those who favor having Islam in control against those who want to divorce Islam from politics and set Iran on a "South Korean pattern" for development. Yet technocratic and intellectual reformers such as Tehran Mayor G. Karbaschi articulate a future more like the "Malaysian model." In this model, Islamic authority retains an assured guiding moral role over society, without sullying its stature with the human failings of daily policy choices.

Concerned about his future, Nateq-Nouri has intensified his vilification of his challengers as believing "in development and reconstruction, even at the cost of trampling on the values of the Islamic Revolution." Nateq-Nouri charges that the technocrats say "economic development needs political development and that in order to achieve political development, we should solve our problems with the world, and namely with America. In short, this means that we should give in to America."

Faced with such incendiary charges, leading SC figures say little about how they would remove foreign-policy bottlenecks hindering Iran's development. Yet the recent suicide bombings in Israel and the subsequent European pressure on Iran to disassociate itself from such violence inspired one leading Iranian daily to insist that Iran does not wish to sabotage the peace process, but favors holding a referendum for Palestinians in Israel and elsewhere to "give a verdict on the peace process. If the majority accepts, Iran will be the first to support it." This hints at a potential change in Iranian foreign policy - moving away from being "more Palestinian than the Palestinians."

In another example of potential Iranian foreign-policy shifts, Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's United Nations ambassador, in a Monitor interview March 20, reiterated Iran's ideal that regional security for the Persian Gulf can be best ensured by regional states. Yet Mr. Kharrazi also observed that "if the US played the role of confidence-building between the GCC and Iran, I'm sure the [security] situation would be much better."

Kharrazi thus tacitly recognizes the asymmetries involved between large and small states, in line with the "flexible realism" vision of the Servants of Construction. The interested outside world should welcome and test such possibilities.

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