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2000 In Review: Iran's Reformers And Conservatives Deadlocked

  • Charles Recknagel

This past year saw Iranian reformers take power in the country's parliament. But they remained unable to challenge the conservatives' dominance of the executive branches or to resist a crackdown on the liberal press. As 2000 comes to an end, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the struggle over Iran's future and what may come next.

Prague, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For anyone hoping 2000 would be a decisive year in the ongoing tug-of-war between Iran's reformers and conservatives, the past 12 months have been a disappointment.

The hopes of reformers soared in February when their candidates, along with scores of sympathetic independents, massively won in parliamentary elections. That spelled an end to the conservatives' long-dominance of the legislature and their consistent use of it to block the reform program of moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

But if the conservatives accepted their defeat at the polls, events soon showed they had no intention of letting it weaken their power. The rest of the year saw a sustained counterattack in which the hardliners used their dominance of the executive, judicial and security branches to bring the reformist drive to a halt.

The conservative counterattack came on three fronts.

A massive and continuing press crackdown which closed more than 25 reform papers and, by last count, leaves just four or five pro-reform papers publishing.

The repeated use of courts to prosecute outspoken reformers and editors, jailing some and intimidating others.

And the use of members of security forces and vigilante militias to attack reformist students holding an annual meeting in Khorramabad. The violence left one policeman dead and brought back fears of the vigilante-sparked unrest which rocked Iran nationwide the year before.

As 2000 ends, many analysts say the reformists' electoral gains and the conservatives' crackdown mean the year ended in yet another stalemate between the rival sides.

Ray Takeyh, a regional expert at the U.S.' Washington Institute, characterizes the year as one which mainly demonstrated the limits on both the reformists' drive for change and the conservatives' ability to stop it. Ray Takeyh:

"[It was a year of] ebbs and flows, and that is the way this thing is going to proceed. There are going to be some marginal successes and some defeats. But what the conservatives have proven is two things: A, that they have the institutional power to retard the reform movement. B, that they don't have the institutional power to stop it."

The next major chance for both sides to gain any new ground in their power struggle will come next year when Iran holds its presidential election on May 11. Takeyh predicts that Khatami will win re-election by continuing to run on a platform of slow but incremental reforms. He says that policy does not overly threaten conservatives and can still win the support of many liberals, despite their disappointment Khatami has not been more assertive in pushing for change. Takeyh:

"He does not have to worry about [any rival candidate who might run against him on] his right. What he has to worry about is a credible candidate running to his left. And that is the only scenario where he can lose the election and that [would] present Iran with many difficulties. A candidate to his left would be completely unacceptable to the Islamic right."

Analysts say that if Khatami wins, the key issue will become whether he will regard his re-election as a vote of confidence to push reform more rapidly. If so, he and the new parliament could produce more progress than he made in his first term. But if Khatami -- and conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- do not see the re-election as a mandate, the reformists could well continue to see their gains in parliament stymied by other organs of power.

On the economic front, this year saw oil prices continue high after rebounding in 1999, with benchmarks currently around $30 a barrel. That was good news for Iran's hard-pressed economy, which must expand dramatically if it is to accommodate waves of young job-seekers at a time when 60 percent of the population is under 21.

Iran places many of its economic hopes in renovating its energy sector and Tehran this year pressed ahead with trying to gain the foreign investment it needs to do so. Khatami visited Germany to increase trade ties --the latest of a series of state-trips to Europe he began last year -- and he visited Japan.

But if 2000 brought new Iranian openings toward EU and Asian countries, it saw no changes in continuing tensions with the United States. These were heightened by an Iranian court's conviction of 10 Iranian Jews for spying for Israel in a trial Washington and several European states criticized as unfair.

Still, the year did see one final gesture by the outgoing administration of President Bill Clinton to encourage a dialogue over all U.S.-Iranian differences. Washington lifted sanctions on non-oil exports including on carpets and some foodstuffs. But the gesture received no follow up from Tehran, showing that any thaws in US-Iranian relations continue to be strongly opposed by Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Regionally, Iran and Iraq sought to ease frictions at the end of the year after an upsurge of particularly violent cross-border operations by armed groups this summer. Each country harbors an opposition group of the other and allows it to attack targets on the other side.

Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi visited Baghdad in October to discuss tensions ranging from the cross-border violence to accusations by both countries that the other still keeps prisoners of war from their 1980-1988 war. His visit -- which ended with pledges to improve relations but few concrete results -- was the first visit to Iraq by such a top Iranian official since 1990.