Q&A: Iran's elections

The Monitor's Scott Peterson provides cultural context for the Feb. 20 political contest.

Scott Peterson has reported from Iran extensively in recent years. He spoke with csmonitor.com's Jim Bencivenga.

What's the most positive development from Friday's elections in Iran?

As with most political events in Iran, the question of what is positive and negative is in the eye of the beholder. Very little happens here that is not seen through the prism of the political battle between the hard-line/conservative camp, and the once-popular reform camp.

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On the face of it, for the conservatives, this election - now that around 2,500 reform-minded candidates have been disqualified - will almost certainly yield victory. That will return control of parliament to the right wing, but will also cause new problems for that faction. The turnout is likely to be very low - in keeping with boycott calls from the main reformist party, and just plain apathy on the part of disenchanted voters - which creates legitimacy problems. The conservatives also must create a new model of rule accepted by more Iranians, who have seen their hopes of more democracy and freedoms - codified by three crucial pro-reform votes since 1997 - dashed by conservatives over the years.

What's the most negative development?

The reformists are crying foul, because the unelected Council of Guardians that barred so many candidates has ensured that reformists can't keep their parliament seats. But there is a much broader issue at stake: Most Iranians these days have as little time for reformists as they do for the hard-liners. They have been completely turned off by politics, and in this vacuum, the divisions between extremists on both sides have deepened.

No one is predicting a new revolution, and there is little chance that the fundamental pillar of Iran's Islamic system - divine clerical rule, in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - will change anytime soon. There are more calls for that kind of change, especially from the increasingly secular reform camp, but most Iranians will tell you that they don't mind who rules, as long as their regime lets them live their own lives, and make their own political and social decisions.

Were these elections a mere show, with the outcome already determined? How likely is it for a civil war to break out in Iran? If one did, would the conservative clerics or the reformers win?

Civil war on the streets is not likely, though there have been sporadic clashes for the past five years. Instead, expect to see new divisions appearing in the conservative camp, between the hard-liners and the so-called moderate, or "rational" conservatives.

These moderates say they are the ones who, after this vote, will be able to carry out key elements of the reform agenda, and have learned the lesson of the reform experience, that reforms are the key demand of the majority. While there have been a few signs that this faction can have an influence - witness Iran's decision last December to sign the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - there are also many signs that the hard-liners still control everything. For example: 4,000 candidates were at first banned by the Guardian Council, then the Council essentially ignored the Supreme Leader's call that those rejections should be reconsidered.

If the conservatives gain control of the parliament, is the reform movement dead?

Checkmated at almost every turn, the reform movement has been dead for some time. But as reformists often say, its ideals and agenda has now become a bedrock part of Iranian politics and popular demands, even if those who first championed that cause have been unsuccessful in achieving the kind of change they were expecting, after so many landslide electoral victories.

Why has the democratic reform movement run out of gas in Iran?

Critics charge that the movement and reform-minded President Mohamed Khatami misjudged the willingness of conservative, unelected bodies - the judiciary, Guardian Council, etc. - to use extralegal means to force the collapse of the reformists. More than 100 reform newspapers have been shut down. Legislation was never approved. Dozens of political prisoners languish in jail. President Khatami is now accused of proving too weak in the face of that onslaught, and of failing to force accountability on the part of most conservative tools of power.

How would you characterize Iran's relations with its neighbors and the United States since Sept. 11? Does it feel threatened by having US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan or does it prefer the US to Hussein and the Taliban?

Iran's relations with its neighbors have changed dramatically since Sept. 11, primarily because of changes in the region wrought by the US - Iran's official arch-foe, which is still known as the "Great Satan" in some quarters here. Two of Iran's key enemies have been removed - the Taliban, and Hussein - with Tehran barely having to lift a finger. These moves are in addition to a long-standing effort by Iran to improve ties to the Gulf states and other neighbors, as it seeks to bring itself out of the isolation that has prevailed since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and cement its role as a regional superpower.

Which western country has the best relations with the current government of Iran? In what ways is it possible for this country to influence, or modify, the hard-line clerical positions?

France probably has the best relations with Tehran at the moment, but the British and Germans are close behind, and relations do vary considerably. Prince Charles just visited last week, to see the destruction of the Bam earthquake. At the same time, the British Embassy in Tehran has been subject to shootings and other attacks in the past year. And France has come under rhetorical fire for its recent decision to ban headscarves and any religious symbols in state classrooms.

Often, those states have little influence on regime decisions. But the foreign ministers of all three governments visited here last October and persuaded the Iranians to open up its nuclear program to the UN's atomic energy watchdog.

Can you give us a sense of how the "man in the street" in Iran views developments in post-Hussein Iraqi? Are there expectations that a Shiite majority government will form closer ties with Iran? Has the image of the US improved at all in the general population? Or just among the young?

Surprisingly, all these issues are tied together. While some Iranian critics of the regime at first welcomed the American presence so close to their border - and some not-so-subtly hoped that the US would continue its "regime change" mission in Iran, too - the chaos that has ensued during the American occupation of Iraq has turned many of them off the idea.

A Shiite government will certainly look more kindly on Iran that Saddam's regime, but the real influence may be the reverse: Analysts say that Iraq's powerful Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is proving that clerics can be powerful, without holding an actual political position. That is a salutary lesson for Iran's leaders, who have insisted on running the show here for a quarter century, but have turned many Iranians off religion in the process, and set themselves up for blame for every problem in Iran.

Are Iranians looking forward to visiting the Shia holy sites in Iraqi, now that Iraqi is not run by the Baathist party?

According to some estimates, there are as many as 50,000 Iranian pilgrims in Iraq at any one time. The ones I have met in Karbala and Najaf have been enthusiastic, and pleased to be able to return so easily to the Iraqi shrines.

How would you characterize relations between expatriate Iranians and those living in Iran under clerical rule? Does the government allow for immigration as a kind of safety valve to minimize dissent?

More and more expatriate Iranians are making the trip back to Iran - some against the wishes of their families in the US; others with their blessing. Often they find that nothing here fits the image they had of the place in their minds, which is often colored by stories of the brutally violent first years of the revolution, and the strict enforcement of social rules for a decade and a half after that. Difficult as life in Iran continues for many, Iranians and their expat brethren are adept at getting around every type of rule, and often revel in the challenge of doing so, as a simple form of protest.

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