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How Iran's reformers lost their political way

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 2005


The Nobel Peace Prize winner could not be more emphatic about the election that swept Iran's hard-liners into the president's office a week ago.

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"Nothing has changed in Iran," says human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, her gaze unwavering as she sits in her modest basement office in Tehran. "Those who were in power are still in power. Why should it get better? If it's been bad up to now, it's going to be bad from now on."

Iran's unelected supreme religious leader still wields ultimate authority; and hard-line ideologues and militants have successfully blocked, sometimes violently, popular efforts to reform.

But while that political dynamic may not have changed, the movement that propelled outgoing President Mohamad Khatami to his first landslide victory in 1997 - borne upon promises of democracy, respect for human rights, and more social freedom - is now unrecognizable.

Divided and now deeply resented, the reform camp has disintegrated, analysts say, and is out of touch with Iranians who now rate rhetoric about freedom below solutions to grave economic problems. Analysts, in fact, no longer speak of a reform "movement" at all, but say that it has collapsed into an agenda with little direction that will drive it into the future.

"I think you have to have bread in the first place, to eat, and talk of freedom next," says Mrs. Ebadi, who has taken on some of the most politically sensitive cases in Iran. "But can [president-elect Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad give bread to the people? The president does not have much power."

Those limits have been made clear during the tenure of Mr. Khatami, who, many argue, became part of the problem for not standing up, early in his presidency, when challenged by the hard-line judiciary and security services who shut down newspapers and jailed opponents.

"Khatami did not provide leadership for the reformists - he was more like a spokesman, and no one else had the authority or the mandate to lead," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a US-educated political scientist at Tehran University.

"This election shows reformists out of touch with their constituents, and shows that people can't eat human rights and democracy," says Mr. Hadian-Jazy. "[I]t is no longer a movement ... its natural evolution will be to a social democratic party. But they need grass-roots organization, because they have lost touch with the people."

One reformist candidate, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi, nearly made it past Mr. Ahmadinejad into the second-round runoff, largely on a pledge to hand out $60 per person per month.

But that was the only reformist nod to economic malaise. The campaigns of candidates across the spectrum - except for that of Ahmadinejad - sought to out-reform each other. That political reading could not have been more wrong.

"This election brought an unprecedented broadening of political dialogue; a lot of red lines were crossed," says Karim Sadjadpour, of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "But that doesn't mean [reform] will cease to be an elite movement. So how do you fill that gap between reform and the people, and transfer this into a popular movement?"

"Now you have tens of millions of Iranians who share the ideals of reform, but feel they have no political representation," says Mr. Sadjadpour. "The Iranian street is like a sleeping elephant: this enormous reservoir of energy and will for political, cultural, and social reform that is not being tapped into right now."

Hoping to reassure reform-leaning voters, Ahmadinejad has begun to temper a radical outlook. As Tehran mayor, he converted cultural centers into mosques. But his culture adviser, Mehdi Kalhor, this week went further than even reformists dared.