How Iran's reformers lost their political way

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

When asked about rumors of installing curtains on sidewalks to separate men from women, Mr. Kalhor scoffed, saying that Ahmadinejad "wants everyone to be joyful," and that his efforts aim to "prevent the government from interfering in private lives."

Press clampdowns were over, Kalhor promised. He endorsed freedom of live music - which has been tightly controlled - and the return to Iran of singers and actors who play now-illegal music from exile. Satellite dishes - also illegal - are "inseparable from people's lives," he said, and women are "free to choose their dress."

But Kalhor retreated later, saying, "these are not the words of the president," even as a hard-line parliamentarian called for a "cultural revolution" to counter greater openness, and said the president should crack down on "badly veiled" women wearing "unIslamic and immoral cloth."

Ebadi is in a good position to test any change, if it comes. Her image and voice have been banned from TV for two decades. When she won the Nobel Prize, state-run TV ignored it until mounting complaints led to a brief mention 24 hours later, in an 11 p.m. broadcast. Hard-liners criticized her for shaking the hand of the man who gave her the Nobel prize.

People may need bread before freedom, Ebadi says, but one can help gain the other. "The reformists did not forget [the economy], but they had no power," she adds, adjusting her multicolored head scarf. "They cared about freedom of speech very much, and if there is enough of it, you can reveal the economic problems and corruption - so the bread will come."

Did Iran's president-elect help seize the US Embassy in 1979?

Student militants who seized the American Embassy here in 1979 - prompting more than a quarter-century of enmity between the US and Iran - Thursday denied that hard-line President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad played any role in the takeover.

"I did not see him there," Abbas Abdi, one of the student leaders who plotted the embassy seizure, told the Monitor. "I have nothing else to say."

Mr. Abdi's denial echoed that of two other leading figures in the saga Thursday, who said that Mr. Ahmadinejad was not among those who captured 52 American hostages, and held them for 444 days.

"I deny such reports. Ahmadinejad was not a member of the radical student group that seized the embassy," former ringleader and recent parliamentarian Mohsen Mirdamadi told Reuters.

All three men have since become reformists who have sometimes been imprisoned for their beliefs. Their views contrast sharply with those of Mr. Ahmadinejad, and Iranian analysts say there is little reason that such a role would not already have been well known. But he may well have been in the compound numerous times, as were other revolutionary students at the time.

Still, the images of his election victory have stirred memories in several former US hostages."This is the guy," former hostage Charles Scott, a retired US Army colonel, told the Associated Press. "There is not question about it. You could make him blond and shave his whiskers, put him in a zoot suit and I'd still spot him." He told The Washington Times that Ahmadinejad "was one of the top two or three leaders."

The AP quoted four other former hostages who concluded that they recognized Ahmadinejad. But it also noted that a fifth former hostage, Air Force Col. Thomas Schaefer (Ret.), did not recognize the president-elect.

Ahmadinejad was a member of the students' Office of the Consolidation of Unity, his office has denied that he had any role in the embassy takeover. Some sources suggest that he instead favored a takeover of the Soviet Embassy, in line with the revolutionary tenet that opposed both cold-war superpowers.

Since Ahmadinejad's victory over Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - who wanted to explore better ties with the US - the president-elect says Iran has "no particular need" for such ties now.

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