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Iran: Conservatives, Reformists Describe Stark Choices For Presidential Poll

  • Charles Recknagel

With Iran's 8 June presidential poll just weeks away, the country's conservative and reformist camps are increasingly speaking of it as a referendum on the role of religion and democracy in the Islamic Republic. The debate has grown more heated as hard-liners continue arresting reformists, and moderate President Mohammad Khatami has yet to declare his candidacy for a second term.

Prague, 27 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's rival conservative and liberal camps are using stark terms to present the choices voters will face in the June presidential poll.

A top conservative official, in an open letter to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, last week said the 8 June vote is about the country's religious identity as an Islamic Republic. Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, also warned Khatami -- who has yet to declare his candidacy -- that if he tries to distance himself "from the people and from Islam, we will distance ourselves from you."

Rezaie, a member of the powerful Expediency Council responsible for settling legislative disputes, also accused liberals of trying to turn the June poll into a referendum to force conservatives to accept political changes.

The hard-line official's remarks came shortly after a key party in the reformist coalition described the presidential poll as a choice between two different versions of Iran's Islamic system.

The Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization described the choice as a "decision between two approaches...between democracy and violence." The party also charged conservatives with trying to block Iran from being a democracy.

The statements highlight what many analysts say is becoming an increasingly emotional atmosphere in the run-up to the election, being held amid a persistent hard-line crackdown on liberals.

On one side is the reformist camp, which argues that the government must respond to voters' demands for change. The reformists' position was boosted by Khatami's landslide victory in 1997 on promises of greater political and social freedoms and, again last year, by their sweep of parliamentary elections.

But the reformists, who dominate Iran's executive and legislative branches, are bitterly opposed by hard-liners who control the judicial branch. The hard-liners see the reformists as a threat to the Islamic Republic's system of Velayat-e Faqih, or supreme religious leadership. That system makes the president subordinate to a religiously appointed Supreme Leader, assuring that the country is guided by religious authorities rather than the electorate.

Khatami, as a cleric, does not challenge that status quo. But to safeguard it further, the hard-liners have used the judiciary to close down some 40 publications -- most of them reformist -- and detained more than 60 journalists and political activists.

Ervand Abrahamian, an expert on Iranian politics at the City University of New York, in the United States, says the hard-liners want to assure that neither Khatami nor any other moderate candidate wins by a landslide this year.

"By silencing the liberals they are trying to kill two birds with one stone. They are getting rid of a public debate against the hard-liners but also they are trying to show the public that the president has really no power. And this of course then undermines the president's position in terms of his authority. It has been a very consistent and concerted effort and they will continue to do this until Khatami withdraws or, if he runs, they hope he will not get the support he got in the last presidential election."

Abrahamian says that the hard-liners hope to weaken the elected institution of the presidency and thus ensure that the Islamic Republic's democratic system poses no threat to its religious leadership. But the analyst says that this strategy is likely to backfire in the long run.

"[From the hard-liners' perspective], in the short run it is a big victory. They got rid of their main headache. But for the long run, it would be very bad for the whole regime itself because what gives a great deal of legitimacy to the Islamic Republic is the republican aspect of the system. By republican I mean the fact that there is room for elections, participation, representation, and a president who is elected, especially (as in 1997) elected with 80 percent of the voters participating."

He continues:

"The [Islamic Republic's] legitimacy, I think, comes far more from this democratic, republican aspect than the whole idea of Velayat-e Faqih. The hard-liners obviously think that the Velayat-e Faqih is the core of the Islamic Republic but as far as the public is concerned, for the vast majority, it is the republican side that is the core of the Islamic Republic. So if they get rid of the public participation and make elections meaningless then they are actually completely undermining the legitimacy and the credibility of the Islamic Republic."

So far, Khatami has tried hard to keep the choices from being defined in just such terms as he himself waits until the last minute to declare whether he will run for re-election.

In a keynote speech last month, he said "there are people in the country who say that we need to suppress freedom in order to let religion survive, and there are others who say we need to suppress religion in order to let freedom survive." But, he said, "the Islamic Republic is a model under which religion and freedom can live together."

Khatami remains the favorite to win if he runs. Under Iranian law he must declare by the end of the first week of May. His brother, Mohammad-Reza Khatami, who heads the coalition's main component, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, recently said the president will announce his decision by 6 or 7 May.

But if Khatami does not run, the election will be wide open and contested by candidates far more likely to polarize the electorate. So far, three candidates from the conservative and one from the reformist camp have announced they will run.

(RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Homayoun Majd contributed to this report.)