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Conservatives Dominate New Iranian Parliament

27 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's new conservative-dominated parliament took office today, three months after controversial elections that were criticized due to the massive disqualification of pro-reform candidates.

The new parliament is the seventh since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The majority of the new deputies belong to the conservative camp of the Iranian establishment. Many of them are characterized as representing a new generation of pragmatic conservatives.

From a total of 290 seats in the new parliament, about 190 belong to the conservatives. The reformists, who dominated the previous chamber, have only about 50 seats.

The speaker of the new parliament is expected to be Gholamali Haddad Adel, who is head of the conservative Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami (or Abadgaran, the Iran Developers Council), which topped the polls in the capital Tehran. It marks the first time in the 25 years of the Islamic Republic that a noncleric is set to become speaker of parliament. Most influential positions in Iran are held by clerics.

Haddad Adel is a professor of philosophy in Tehran and has family ties to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He has held several government posts, including deputy minister of education.

In a recent interview, Haddad Adel said the new parliament will focus on people's day-to-day problems. In an interview published on his party's website, he said: "People are suffering from costly life expenses, high rents, unemployment, drug addiction, and traffic problems, particularly in Tehran."

Iran's official unemployment rate is estimated at 20 percent.

Other leaders of Abadgaran have also stated that their main priority is to improve the country's ailing economy. However, they have yet to put forward any specific measures.

"Whether or not they have a particular program for [the economy], at least I'm not aware [of one]," said Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, "but certainly, they have been arguing, and they have been advocating so much for economic reforms and improving the standard of living, [about] doing something about the huge number of unemployed that Iran is having at the moment and controlling the prices."

Iran's previous parliament had been one of the last strongholds for the country's embattled reformists. Conservative candidates won the majority of seats in February's parliamentary elections after more than 2,000 reformist candidates were eventually disqualified by the Guardians Council, an unelected 12-member body of clerics and Islamic jurists with broad powers to oversee parliament.
"We don't see many strong and well-known reformist [deputies] within the reformists in the Majlis [parliament], so perhaps it will take some time before the reformist faction will actually turn into a very important opposition." -- Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at Tehran University

The decision was criticized internally by reformist groups. The elections were criticized as flawed and undemocratic by the European Union and the United States.

Today's inauguration ceremony broke into an uproar after pro-reform Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi Lari criticized the mass disqualification of candidates.

In a speech, Lari said that "3,617 candidates were disqualified by the Guardians Council, 1,599 of them without legal proof." Lari's comments angered some of the new conservative deputies, who shouted and threatened to leave.

Following the disqualifications, all of Iran's provincial governors and several government officials called for the parliamentary elections to be postponed and threatened to resign in protest.

Yesterday, Iran's hard-line judiciary reportedly summoned about 20 officials -- including 18 governors and two deputy interior ministers -- for making what it simply said were "statements concerning the parliamentary elections." Iran's official news agency IRNA reported yesterday that the officials face charges such as spreading lies and inciting public opinion.

Zibakalam said he believes the officials will not face jail terms, however. "[Their cases] will not result in any jail terms. [I believe the] conservatives would not do so because, politically, they are in a strong position, and they would not [gain anything by being] very repressive," he said.

Conservative winners of the election have dismissed concerns that they will attempt to curb civil rights. Political analysts say the conservatives have solidified their position and will try to portray themselves in a better light.

Ahead of the elections, reformists had pledged to play a strong opposition role in parliament. Zibakalam said the role of the reformists in the new parliament will now depend on which coalitions might be formed and also on individual deputies.

"It very much would depend upon individual reformist deputies that have been elected," he said. "We don't see many strong and well-known reformist [deputies] within the reformists in the Majlis [parliament], so perhaps it will take some time before the reformist faction will actually turn into a very important opposition."

The previous parliament had introduced several pro-reform bills aimed at improving human rights in Iran. Many of the reforms were rejected by the Guardians Council. Zibakalam said it is possible that some human rights bills will also be introduced in the new parliament:

"It is still possible that either the government would introduce such bills or some of the more independent-minded Majlis deputies would actually introduce bills that would be aiming to improve the human rights situation in Iran," Zibakalam said.

Observers predict there will be fewer disputes between the new parliament and the Guardians Council.

Reformist President Khatami today called on the new deputies to be open toward different opinions. Otherwise, he said, people will lose trust in the system.
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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.