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Analysis: Iran's Conservatives Play Down Their Differences

The divisions within Iran's political right wing are amply demonstrated by the fact that five individuals are vying to be the conservatives' candidate in the 2005 presidential election. Reformist observers are emphasizing these differences, whereas conservative commentators are downplaying them. Similar differences appeared before the 2001 presidential election and died out soon thereafter. Now, the differences could be more meaningful.

The five main candidates -- Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad, supreme leader adviser Ali Larijani, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai, Tehran parliamentary representative Ahmad Tavakoli, and supreme leader adviser Ali Akbar Velayati -- addressed a meeting of the conservative Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces on 17 December.

Perhaps the most noteworthy comments came from Ahmadi-Nejad, who was not physically at the meeting. The election is six months away, he wrote in a letter to the conference, so premature attention to it will cut into his work for the city of Tehran, Mehr News Agency reported on 17 December. Ahmadi-Nejad represents the hopes of the young conservatives, "Sharq" reported on 19 December. He is perceived as a person who lives simply and works hard. However, the support of a marginal group in the conservative faction is a serious hindrance.

The other candidates' comments were less unusual. Tavakoli said as president he would emphasize economic development and would fight corruption, Mehr News Agency reported on 19 December.

Velayati said he would focus on job creation, modification of the Labor Code to emphasize job security, economic reforms, and privatization of state-owned enterprises, Mehr News Agency reported on 17 and 19 December. He also claimed that the United States opposes Iran because its Islamic revolution led to developments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. He did not explain how the Iranian revolution led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the emergence of the Taliban, but his audience presumably made sense of the statement.

One can question Velayati's seriousness as a candidate, however, in light of his 16 December statement in a meeting with the Islamic Association of Teachers. "I have no interest and inclination to compete in the election," he said, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA). "I consider it is my duty to enter this scene as an obligation and winning or not is not important to me at all."

The United States wants a "weak government" in Iran, Larijani said, according to "Sharq" on 18 December. He stressed the need for decentralization and self-sufficiency. Larijani appeals to the traditionalists and the modernists, "Sharq" reported on 19 December, but Ahmadi-Nejad and Velayati are serious rivals. His effort to appeal to everybody is clever but could backfire if everybody comes to see him as a "second-best" choice.

Rezai said he would focus on job creation and the eradication of poverty, Mehr News Agency reported on 17 and 19 December. He said that within 20 years Iran should become the region's preeminent economic power and leader in information technology. In yet another indication of the conservatives' differences, Rezai said in the 27 December "Farhang-i Ashti" newspaper that he will run as an independent candidate if the fundamentalist conservatives do not back him. The government he has in mind, he said, would continue its values-oriented conduct and would act democratically. He explained that an authoritative government that is not democratic would lead to a closed political atmosphere. According to a 26 December report on Iranian state television, the Welfare Party has announced that Rezai is its candidate.

Rezai's insistence on going his own way means that he does not have a significant base of support or organizational backing. His outspokenness before the 2001 presidential election led to speculation that he would run as a candidate. Serious observers, however, viewed him as a bit player who, at best, was testing the waters for a later presidential bid. Rezai's managerial experience at the national level is limited, although he did command the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.

With the exception of Rezai, the candidates' public statements do not reveal any significant differences. Reformist newspapers have therefore jumped on the differences between conservative groups. For example, an unattributed editorial in the 19 December "Aftab-i Yazd" wanted to know where the candidates stand on nuclear negotiations with the European Union, on membership in the World Trade Organization, and on the Fourth Five-Year Development Plan. Perhaps, the editorial suggested, the Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces should detail its stance on these issues, and the public could choose the individual who most closely adheres to this stance.

Habibullah Asgaroladi-Musalman, former secretary-general of the Islamic Coalition Party, stressed that all the conservative groups should agree with the collective decision of the Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces, "Sharq" reported on 19 December. Another member of the council, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, made a similar point.

Hojatoleslam Taha Hashemi, the editor of the now defunct "Entekhab" newspaper, described the need for a conservative Third Current in early 2001 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 30 April 2001). He described this as "religious modernism" that is more attractive to young Iranians than the hard-liners' extremism, and he added that this falls between extremism and calls for a secular government. Iran is in need of the "smiling descendants of the Prophet, rather than his grimacing followers," Hashemi said in a reference to the unsmiling faces of hard-line officials. The Third Current was subsequently criticized by other conservative elements as an effort to latch on to President Mohammad Khatami's popularity. After the presidential election, furthermore, little was heard about the issue.

The current conservative differences are more enduring and have deeper roots, although they too are linked to age-cohorts within the conservative movement. Leading conservative politicians say that they will settle on one candidate by mid-January. That choice will be an indication of which tendency dominates conservative politics.