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Hard-liners in Iran soften their edges

Battles between conservatives and reformers may be yielding a new political pragmatism.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 2003


Iran's hard-line conservatives are smelling victory over the once-popular reform movement led by President Mohammad Khatami.

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The Khatami era has been marred by a political civil war - as violent sometimes as it has been full of hope - in which reformers fought for the rule of law, a civil society, and the marriage of democracy and Islam. After a long struggle against hard-line conservatives unwilling to trim their absolute power, former Khatami supporters now declare bitterly: "The battle is over."

Yet, as February parliamentary elections approach, there are signs that conservatives - even as they continue to crush the reform camp - are taking on elements of the reform agenda and showing a new pragmatism.

Some argue that the clash of ideas has resulted in a drawing of Iranian politics toward a new center, as extremists are shunted aside. Despite admitting crucial mistakes and mourning goals unmet, reformers say that their glass is half full, because the reform agenda will inevitably dominate Iran's future, regardless of who wins at the polls.

"Revolution means changing everything, and some thought [reform] was another revolution to replace the current regime," says Taha Hashemi, chief editor of the conservative newspaper Entekhab. "But now reforms have been established in society, and conservatives have no choice but to be compatible with them, or be isolated," says Mr. Hashemi, a black-turbaned cleric. "Most reformers are thinking of their failures, and conservatives also distance themselves from extreme hard-liners. No doubt, this new balance of moderate conservatives and reformers will take the future of Iran in their hands," Hashemi says.

If it materializes, such a realignment could help ease the political tension that has overshadowed Iranian politics for more than half a decade. Reform leaders say that, even if they and Khatami become "victims" of the conservative comeback, reform moves can't be turned back.

"Reforms did not fail, because they have taken root among the people," says Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a vice president and close Khatami adviser, in an interview. "I predict that the conservative camp will use reformist slogans in all elections - that is what we are looking for. If they are sincere, this is what we want."

A sense of betrayal

Still, a feeling of disappointment among reformers - and disillusionment with - reformers is palpable.

"The history of the last 1-1/2 years is the fall of Khatami's popularity: People used to adore him, and now you rarely hear a person who will defend him," says Reza Alavi, a former managing editor of the Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review, now in Tehran. "Right now, no one knows what direction to go," he adds. "A collective depression has set in."

Saraj, a young attendant at a Tehran sports complex, voices a common anger among Iran's youthful majority, which pinned its hopes on reform and today sees no result. "It was a mistake to vote for Khatami in 2001. It was a waste," he says. "I won't vote again."

Their sense of betrayal is due to a collapse of high expectations of social change and caps on clerical rule that swept across Iran after Khatami's unprecedented election victory in 1997. He won again on a wave of popular goodwill, with 79 percent of votes cast, in 2001.

But reform efforts have been blocked at every turn by unelected conservative bodies, allied militias, and security services with no allegiance to Khatami, that feared for their own future if they gave up the levers of power.

Some 90 newspapers have been shut down in recent years, several activists have been killed, and scores more arrested and intimidated. Protests - which most recently in June voiced direct criticism of Khatami, as well as Iran's Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei - turned violent, then fell apart.

Khatami reportedly admitted defeat last month, telling students: "If you had pinned your hopes on [the reform movement] and we were defeated ... at least know that we did not lie to the people and we did not betray them."

The Khatami era is a testament to the difficulties of bringing democracy to Iran - an ancient nation that has know nothing but monarchy and absolutist rule for 2,500 years. "When people ask: 'Mr. Khatami, why don't you do anything against your opponents' in a despotic, authoritarian way, it means that [democratic] culture does not yet exist here," says Mr. Abtahi. "In the West, you built this culture over 300 years, and had two world wars."

One problem, Abtahi says, may have been that reformers wanted too much too fast. "If we criticize ourselves, some reformers used a lot of pressure to move very fast" with a speed "that led the conservatives to believe that we wanted to eliminate them."