Prague, 23 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's electorate went to the polls today to select an Assembly of Experts, a body with the authority to appoint or dismiss Iran's Supreme Leader. Earlier this week, RFE/RL correspondent Lisa McAdams spoke with Ali Ansari, an expert on Iran and Associate Fellow of Political History of the Middle East at the University of Durham in Britain. The wide-ranging interview covered many questions related to the balloting, from alleged manipulation of the political process to the vote's overall significance. The interview also touched on Iranian domestic and foreign-policy issues.
Ansari begins with whether the election is "free and fair."
"If more moderates could get (into the Assembly of Experts) they could obviously have some constitutional leverage on the leadership. And what the hardliners are anxious to do is to prevent this from happening. So, what we've found is that (the hardliners) have in essence manipulated or orchestrated the electoral procedure in order to ensure that no moderates, or very few moderates, could stand. And this has obviously not gone down well with the left-wing."
Ansari details how the refusal of the conservative-dominated Council of Guardians to allow pro-reform candidates has led to a split among moderates:
"Some people say (moderates) should participate anyway because the ability to vote and participation in voting is in itself something which should be imbedded in the Iranian psyche. Others say no, no participation, because that would only give the election legitimacy."
No matter how the rift plays out, Ansari says the overall vote will have little affect on current circumstances:
"The consequences of a hard-line Assembly of Experts will not be so great in reality because, in essence, it is (already) dominated by hardliners and nothing will really have changed. An opportunity that will be missed this time is to maybe change the composition in a big way."
Ansari says that the suggestion that women be allowed to stand for the Assembly represents a major step forward, even though all but one of the candidacies were rejected by the Council of Guardians. (eds: the lone woman allowed to compete withdrew):
"The suggestion that women could stand for the Assembly of Experts was actually quite a bold move. In many ways, what some of the moderates were trying to do was to push back the boundaries of patriarchalism (eds: male dominance), which permeates many aspects of Iranian society. (Women candidates for the Assembly were) suggested and, not surprisingly, rejected. This is not something that I think came as a great shock to most people. Had (women) been accepted, it would have been a major, major step forward. But what is important this time is the whole notion of women to attend the Assembly of Experts -- or be elected to it -- has been thrown into the arena. People have said that in legal terms there is nothing to oppose. What we have to do now is to get the more conservative and even chauvinistic of Iranian men to actually come to terms with this happening in reality."
Ansari says youth are key to the course of Iranian politics:
"Young people represent a major influence, if not an influence on the direction of the government. If we consider that 80 percent of the population is under the age of 40 -- and a huge 50 percent of the population is under the age of 20 -- then we see that the vast majority of youth have no recollection of pre-revolutionary Iran. They have lived within the Islamic Republic of Iran and have their own demands and criticisms of it."
Turning away from the election, Ansari gave his view on the recent build-up of tensions between Iran and Afghanistan:
"I do not think there is going to be a general conflict in the region, not a conventional war where in which the Iranians would invade or launch a land attack. But, certainly, it remains a possibility that there may be airstrikes against the Taliban, depending upon what the Taliban do. But in recent weeks, the tensions have been subsiding, largely because both sides have agreed to talk. But as far as I can see, the tension is likely to remain for quite awhile."
Also on the foreign policy front, Ansari said there has been progress on the long-standing dispute concerning British Author Salman Rushdie:
"The Rushdie issue has been solved diplomatically -- meaning as far as Iran's relations with the United Kingdom, and its relations with the European Union, and possible long-term relations with the United States -- a major obstacle has been removed. In terms of the religious edict, no, nothing has changed. And, in practical terms, the bounty remains. There are certain elements in Iran that will adhere to it, but the government has made an emphatic statement that it will not pursue Rushdie and does not support the bounty."