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Iran: What Does Conservative Victory In Parliament Mean For Future?

The final vote count in Iran's controversial elections shows that the conservatives gained a clear majority in parliament. While reformists are concerned the victory could lead to a further crackdown on political and social freedoms, some analysts believe such a move is unlikely since it would only set back their electoral successes.

Prague, 26 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The victory of conservatives in last 20 February parliamentary elections effectively quashed the reform movement in Iran. Where will the country go from here?

Jafar Golabi is a journalist in Tehran. "In Iran, unfortunately or fortunately, it is really not possible to predict the course of events,” he said. “In general, despite the [conservative] victory, I still think the [political] atmosphere is unclear. Here, the atmosphere is such that we have to wait and see what happens."

In Iran's major cities, voter turnout was only about 30 percent, and reformists claim that about 15 percent of those votes were actually blank. People on the street are generally reacting with indifference to the conservative victory, but observers warn the situation could change.

Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, speaking yesterday at a session of the European Parliament, criticized the elections and warned that if the new leadership does not respect the wishes of the people, the patience of Iran's young people could run out.

"If the hard-liners, if the ideologically oriented conservatives, take the leadership of the conservatives, then I don't see any bright future for the Islamic Republic."
The 290-seat parliament, the Majlis, was one of the last strongholds of reformists in Iran. In the next parliament, which convenes in May, conservatives will regain the majority, having won 156 seats.

Gholamali Hadad Adel, head of the conservative Abadgaran Party, which won almost all of the seats representing the capital, Tehran, told reporters the party's main focus will be on economic reforms. At the same time, he said the party would respect civil rights. Hadad Adel says the new parliament will support reformist President Mohammad Khatami until the end of his second and final term in June 2005.

Following Khatami's election in 1997, social restrictions began to ease in Iran, a development that concerned the country's hard-liners. The conservatives responded by closing several cultural centers, shutting down some pro-reform and liberal publications, and jailing student activists, journalists, and intellectuals. Two reformist daily newspapers were closed just a few days before last week's elections after they published a letter critical of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Many reformists are expressing concern about a new conservative crackdown on social and political freedoms. Golabi believes it is unlikely the conservatives would resort to such measures. "There is no doubt that the conservatives have the capacity for such acts, but if they take such measures, in fact, they would damage their victory in the elections," he sai. "If a victorious faction resorts to measures such as arresting people, then definitely it's proof of [the faction's] weakness and of various problems."

Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, believes the conservatives now feel secure and that they will try to portray themselves in a more positive light. "They have won the elections. They are back in power, and they feel strong," he said. "Moreover, they would try to tell their critics -- be they Americans, be they Europeans, be they reformists at home -- 'Look, we are not as bad as you were trying to portray us. We are not as dreadful, and we are not pursuing coercive and repressive policies.'"

The conservative victory is, however, expected to lead to Khatami's further isolation. His allies won only about 40 seats in parliament, and there is a growing speculation that conservatives will now try to change his cabinet.

Zibakalam says the conservatives will not target Khatami himself but will try to gain control over key ministries. "I think what they will do is that they would make some changes, most important of which to my knowledge would be to try to change the Ministry of Intelligence because, since President Khatami was elected in 1997, one of the important positions that the conservatives lost was the control of the Ministry of Intelligence," he said. "The second change that definitely the [parliament] would press for would be replacing the [interior minister], because that ministry appoints all the governors and the chief of provinces throughout Iran, and that is also another area that the conservatives lost and they want to take it back."

Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law in Tehran, agrees. "In the beginning, in order to strengthen their position, the conservatives will try to put more pressure on the executive branch and make the main decisions themselves," he said. "Even some of Khatami's ministers or his programs will not be accepted."

Iran's parliamentary elections have been widely criticized in the West as being flawed, including sharp criticism from the European Union, which has advocated a policy of constructive engagement with Tehran. Analysts say such criticisms will negatively impact relations with the West in the short term but that things will eventually even out.

Bavand says the conservatives will try to gain the upper hand in Iran's foreign policy and believes that, in the long run, they will follow a moderate and pragmatic policy. "There is a view that the conservatives are willing to take charge of Iran's foreign policy negotiations, and in this regard they will take more serious measures [to improve relations with the West]," he said.

Iran's talks with France, Britain, and Germany over its nuclear program last fall were lead by the conservative head of the National Security Council, Hassan Rouhani, who is considered a strong future presidential candidate. Observers say the conservatives, now that they control most levers of power in the republic, will now aim to gain the presidency.

Reformists are vowing to reorganize themselves and to continue their efforts through civil society organizations.

Zibakalam says reforms in Iran will continue, but that the struggle will now be between moderate and hard-line conservatives. "I think the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran is tied to the outcome of this struggle," he said. "If the hard-liners, if the ideologically oriented conservatives, take the leadership of the conservatives, then I don't see any bright future for the Islamic Republic. If, however, the more educated, the more pragmatic, the more moderate conservatives can manage to take control of the country's economy and government in their own hands and prevent hard-liners from decision making, then I think there are some lights at the end of the tunnel for the future of the Islamic Republic."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.