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Iran debate: Who owns the revolution?

Hard-liners play tough to prevent reformist gains in March 14 vote.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2008

Heard on the Street: Clerics chat in Qom, a city known for its seminaries and religious teaching. The discourse among politicians has become vitriolic ahead of next week's election.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Qom and Tehran, Iran

Rival factions contesting Iran's parliamentary elections next week are breaking longstanding taboos and using once-sacred icons to challenge opponents in a vote that is likely to set the tone for the presidential contest in 2009.

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All sides say they revere Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and are devoted to the ideals of its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But who truly carries that revolutionary torch is the focus of vicious debate in which rivals accuse one another of being "enemies" of the regime bent on deliberately destroying it.

Iran's conservative camp, known as "principlists" and including allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is deeply divided but likely to keep its majority in the 290-seat parliament, or majlis, in the March 14 vote. The number of reformist candidates – relative liberals who want to ease social restrictions and end isolation from the West – has been limited, as hard-liners aim to prevent their political comeback.

The discourse shows the profound confidence of Iran's most radical right-wing factions, analysts say. But their unbridled effort to keep hold of every lever of power in Iran is also causing them to break many long-held rules.

"In 29 years, they didn't have the courage to talk this way," says Grand Ayatollah Saanei, a high-ranking cleric, speaking in the religious center of Qom. "But now [hard-liners] have full control and they have no competitors inside or outside Iran."

Regime confidence has also been inadvertently boosted by Washington, which published in December a US National Intelligence Estimate that determined that Iran had halted work on a nuclear weapons program in 2003. Suddenly the belief that "war was just around the corner" disappeared, says Iraj Jamshidi, political editor of the reformist Etemaad newspaper in Tehran.

"The conservatives feel a very strong sense of power in themselves, especially after the NIE report …they feel the chance of war against them is gone," says Mr. Jamshidi. "The reality is that the Islamic Republic feels itself at the peak of its power since the revolution, and the foreign threat does not exist anymore."

Indeed, Mr. Ahmadinejad has kept up his anti-West rhetoric, this week dismissing as "worthless" a third round of UN Security Council sanctions for Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment. He recently claimed that Iran's nuclear defiance has "brought all big powers to their knees"; and decried opponents in Iran for helping "materialize the plans of the enemies."