Iran's young elite face trial by fire

Iran's youngest female parliamentarian is facing an end to her days in government - and jail time.

No political opponent ever accused Iran's youngest woman parliamentarian of mincing words - and she has strong ones for the hard-line conservatives who have engineered almost certain victory in next week's parliament vote.

The election campaign officially began Thursday, but Fatemah Haqiqat-Jou - along with some 2,500 other candidates - is barred from running by the unelected Guardian Council.

The freshly minted lawmaker first came to office in 2000 full of hope, imbued with ideals of justice and democracy, and backed by 1 million Tehran votes - part of a reformist landslide that ushered in a new generation of young leaders.

But today the collapsing dreams of Ms. Haqiqat-Jou, whom the Monitor first met on the campaign trail four years ago when she was 31, is emblematic of how hardliners in Iran have triumphed over the first reform parliament since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

That victory cannot last, vows Haqiqat-Jou, a demure new mother who expects that she may soon have to fulfill a prison sentence, handed down by a notoriously hard-line prosecutor in August 2001.

"There are two options: Either [conservatives] are destroyed, and finally destroy the Islamic system, or they change their behavior toward people," warns the soft-spoken deputy, who wears her many-layered chador with elegant ease.

"I believe in the proverb: 'Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,' " says Haqiqat-Jou, narrowing unflinching eyes. "That is our main problem now."

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes all final decisions. But after twice asking the Guardian Council to reconsider the cases of nearly 4,000 barred candidates, he finally accepted the banning of some 2,500, and said the vote would not be delayed.

Like most reformists, Haqiqat-Jou sees it differently. The decisions of the Guardian Council are "both un-Islamic and illegal," says the lawmaker, one of 11 women deputies in the 290-seat parliament, or majlis.

"Reforms from within the state are impossible now," she says during an interview in the downtown offices of the main reform party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF). The IIPF is boycotting the election. "They are not dead; the young generation is determined to find reforms, even if they take a different form."

That message was echoed during a rally to mark the 25-year anniversary of the revolution on Wednesday, by reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami, who has watched his own vast popularity disappear amid charges of ineffectiveness.

"Elections are a symbol of democracy if they are performed correctly," Mr. Khatami told the conservative crowd. Not a single portrait of the embattled head of state was evident among the sea of pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of Iran's revolution, and Iran's current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. "If this is restricted, it's a threat to the nation and the system."

It already may be too late, says Haqiqat-Jou, who receives "a lot of complaints" about the failure of reformers from students when she teaches at a local university. "I think people are disappointed and in despair, because they think their vote doesn't count."

The unassuming woman hardly looks like a populist firebrand who held audiences of both men and women rapt four years ago, before and after her election victory, when 83 percent of Iranian voters flocked to polling booths.

Back then, Haqiqat-Jou spoke confidently about the reform interpretation of "individual and social rights and pluralism," and the public rejection of methods that "used religion to take power and finish with their enemies."

"It's a fight we have to win," she had declared.

But today, Haqiqat-Jou's rap sheet includes detention, sit-in protests, and a 20-month prison sentence for "misinterpreting" the words of Ayatollah Khomeini and for insulting the Guardian Council. She was acquitted of the first charge, taking 10 months off the sentence.

Haqiqat-Jou says she expects there will be arrests of other prominent reformers, who led a three-week sit-in in parliament last month, to protest the disqualification of the reform candidates, including 80 sitting members of parliament.

A mass resignation of more than 120 MPs deepened the political crisis; even more MPs were disqualified upon appeal to the Guardian Council, including the president's brother Reza Khatami, who received more votes in 2000 than any other politician.

Some observers are cautious when interpreting the meaning of the disqualifications, however. "This is not 2,500 nice, enlightened democrats who want to participate in the vote, against the bad, dark Guardian Council that wants to kick them out - that is not true," says a Western diplomat.

Besides basic standards of literacy and education, candidates are also required to prove their devotion to Islam and to the supreme leader, who is deemed infallible among Iran's revolutionary faithful - a test that the increasingly secular reformists, including Haqiqat-Jou, may not have passed.

"I don't mean to take the side of the Guardian Council, but [some of] these people made clear they want a secular system, which is against the Constitution," the diplomat says.

The result may be that political debates on sensitive subjects that have marked this reform parliament may end, and spark "a new repression after the election."

But how did the reform tidal wave that swept Khatami to his first election victory in 1997 lose its power after the 2000 vote? In those days, Haqiqat-Jou expressed unbridled optimism for the daunting task of meeting high expectations, because conservatives "have no choice but to let the new parliament do its work," she had said.

But then the judiciary and security organs, still in the hands of hard-liners who feared for their political lives, began immediately to shut down scores of reform newspapers, and to arrest key editors and critical intellectuals. The Guardian Council blocked every single piece of reform legislation - including those meant to curtail the powers of unelected bodies.

"I couldn't have predicted for a single moment that such difficult things were awaiting reformists ... that the conservatives would use all the legal and illegal means, while we limited ourselves to the legal," Haqiqat-Jou says, in calm, measured tone.

"If [conservatives] win the majlis, reformists will be under even more pressure, and will have even more obstacles," says Haqiqat-Jou.

"Some could possibly be arrested. I have 10 months [of jail time to serve] from before; I will have new friends in prison."

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