Reform still tops agenda in Iran

Following Friday's vote, moderate conservatives are seen by some as the new standard bearer for reform.

Political battle lines are being redrawn in Iran, as ballots are tallied in a vote that is returning parliament to conservative control and ushering in a new political era.

At stake in last Friday's election is the fate of widespread demands for change, as Iran's once-popular reformists exit the political arena.

Among the conservatives, two factions - hard-line and moderate - are already gearing up for the new tug of war. But amid a cascade of uncertainties and mixed signals, Iran's political future is far from clear.

Many reformist Iranians predict renewed repression, and point to the closure of two reformist newspapers on the eve of the vote as a sign of things to come. But others argue that moderates will prevail and embrace key elements of the reform agenda.

"This is the point where the usefulness of hard-liners is over," says Amir Mohebian, a director of the conservative newspaper Resalat. "They will endeavor to stay in [control], but their time is over. The new mission belongs to moderate conservatives.

"Hard-liners are like dynamite: You can destroy things with them, but can't build things," adds Mr. Mohebian.

Calls by the main reform party for a boycott after unelected hard-liners barred their candidates from running kept nationwide turnout at around 50 percent - the lowest turnout for any parliamentary election since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But conservatives and reformers alike were expecting far less, so the total turnout enabled conservatives to declare victory. The popularity of reformers has flagged in recent years as their promises of greater freedom have gone unmet.

"Many people feel we are moving toward a darker age, but maybe it won't happen," says a veteran Iranian political analyst. "With 50 percent, this gives space for moderate conservatives, and gives peace of mind to hard-liners, so they don't shake and worry. They are highly motivated to do something - to show people they can do some good."

The new parliament will have a new energy, though "all parties in the [conservative] group do not have the same aims and objectives," says Hussein Shariatmadari, a representative of Iran's supreme leader, and editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper.

Dismissing talk of fresh arrests that he blames on "reform hard-liners trying to frighten people," Mr. Shariatmadari says the "judiciary regulates this, and judicial power hasn't changed, so the rules won't change."

Conservatives fought to counter the boycott, with senior clerics telling Iranians it was a "religious duty" to vote, and that every ballot was like a "bullet" in the heart of US President Bush.

State-run television and radio were filled on Friday with exaggerated reports of an "epic" turnout, and images of long lines of enthusiastic voters from past elections that, in fact, have given landslide victories to reformists.

At press time, conservatives had won 124 seats in the 194 tallied contests. Fewer than 100 seats remained to be tallied, with the conservative expected to keep their edge.

Analysts are already looking for clues about the power struggle to come. Those forecasting hard-line dominance and a new crackdown point to:

• The closure last Thursday of reformist Yas-e-No and Shargh newspapers. They ignored official warnings and published a stern letter from incumbent parliamentarians that accused Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of trampling "legitimate freedoms."

• The surprise rejection of nearly 4,000 reform candidates in January by the Guardian Council, a 12-member unelected body led by hard-line Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati.

• Intervention by Mr. Khamenei led to the reinstatement of only 1,500 candidates - a figure that some view as an unprecedented snub of the supreme leader presaging a hard-line future.

But there have also been signs of flexibility on the part of the conservative establishment, analysts say, that point to a new pragmatism, and the ability to carry out decisions that reformers could never achieve. Among them:

• Conservative parties put up few big name politicians for the vote, ceding instead to a younger group that has not been tested - and could prove to be, in the words of one Western diplomat, "sheep in wolves' clothing."

• Under pressure recently from Egypt, and with promises of closer ties, Iranian officials have given a new name to a Tehran street named after the assassin of Anwar Sadat, the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel.

• Despite hard-line rhetoric on Iran's nuclear ambitions, Iran decided late last year to cooperate fully with the UN atomic energy watchdog, open the door to snap nuclear inspections, and sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty's additional protocol.

• And on the question of ties with arch foe America - long a pillar of the revolution-even top hard-liners now say that relations "are not forbidden like wine, nor obligated like prayer."

Credence for the moderate view took shape in the Resalat newspaper over the weekend. It warned in an editorial that the "biggest threat to the Islamic Revolution is radicalism." New parliamentarians must learn from the failures of the reformists, the newspaper added, that "even beautiful" slogans must be carried out, and that the deputies must "implement Iranian reforms."

"No one is against reforms in Iran," says Mohebian, a member of the Resalat editorial board. Hard-liners thwarted attempts by reformists to bring new political and social freedoms, he says, only because the regime "was on guard, and did not trust them. It trusts us."

But few expect the hard-liners to quietly give up control - or the occasionally violent methods of loyalists.

"There is the expectation of revenge, and very strong language has been used against the reformists ... up to being the enemies of God," says a Western diplomat. While arrests may be a possibility, some say that hard-liners "recognize their damaged credibility, and wouldn't dare to crackdown."

Even without a crackdown, though, some wonder whether all the years of political and religious indoctrination will permit hard-liners to shift gears.

"I think it is very difficult for [hard-liners] to understand the demands of the people - and people won't forget their demands," says cleric Taha Hashemi, editor of the moderate conservative Entekhab newspaper.

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