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Iran: Reformists Win Large But Limited Victory

Iran's parliamentary election represents a sweeping victory for reformists, but their power to introduce more than gradual changes is likely to remain limited. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Tehran, 22 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Reformists and their allies now command a majority in Iran's parliament, giving them control of what has been a conservative bastion since the Islamic Revolution 20 years ago.

That will have immediate implications for several draft bills that have been highly controversial in the current legislature.

One is a proposal put forward by hardline deputies last year to limit debate in Iran by making many forms of free speech a crime if they challenge the conservatives' interpretation of the state.

That bill is now unlikely ever to be passed -- a victory for Iran's reformist journalists who have been under constant conservative attacks to shut down their newspapers over the last years.

A reformist majority in the next parliament also will free liberals to push forward with legislative priorities of their own. One of these is to reform the judiciary -- a conservative power base -- by strengthening the powers of its recently appointed and pro-reform head.

And there will be at least one other major change in parliament under the reformists. It is no longer likely to see repeated -- and sometimes successful -- attempts to impeach top moderate ministers in President Mohammad Khatami's cabinet.

But even as reformists now can seize the legislative initiative, they will be doing so under the Islamic Republic's unique system of theocracy, which puts severe curbs on the parliament's power to make changes.

The state as a whole retains the Islamic Revolution's system of Velayat-e Faqih, or Guardianship of the Supreme Juriconsult, which places ultimate authority in all matters in the hands of Iran's highest-ranking cleric, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Analysts say that this structure -- plus the conservatives' continuing control of key elements such as the armed forces, security services, and courts -- make the parliament far from the most important power center in the country. RFE/RL regional specialist William Samii says:

"The real limit in a purely legal sense is that all legislation approved by the parliament has to go on to the 12-member Council of Guardians to be approved on the basis of conformity with Islamic law before it can actually be legalized as legislation...If a deadlock results, then it goes to the Expediency Council...which is headed by Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Now this is going to be problematic, because it looks like Rafsanjani's attempt to become speaker of parliament has run into a brick wall, and it is not clear how he will react to this when he is dealing with any legislation."

Rafsanjani is widely seen to be liberal in his economic views but socially conservative. He was endorsed in his bid this week for a parliamentary seat by the main conservative faction.

But if the reformists' seizure of parliament gives them control of only a limited new power base, it remains an enormously significant event in Iranian politics.

The poll sent a powerful message to conservatives that an overwhelming majority of Iranians do not want to see the Islamic Republic remain the same as it has for the last two decades. That was a reconfirmation of the same message sent in the May 1997 presidential election, which brought Khatami to power on promises of reform.

The theme of change was constantly stressed in the reformers' campaigns.

Reformist candidates most often described themselves as technocrats and referred to their academic qualifications or technical experience in promising to build a better future. And they spoke of themes unheard of in the Islamic Republic even a few years ago: economic reforms, pluralism, greater individual freedom, and the equality of all citizens before the law -- regardless of religious standing.

By contrast, the conservatives most often spoke of their religious qualifications as they promised to maintain the original values of the 1979 revolution that swept the western-oriented Shah from power. Their speeches stressed spiritual integrity and faith in theocracy.

The campaign posters of the two sides expressed the same differences symbolically. The reformers were usually pictured as smiling, emulating Khatami's own style, and sporting designer stubble -- a two or three-day beard long enough to meet theological requirements but not long enough to look like a mullah.

The conservatives did not smile, in line with a dictum by the revolution's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that anyone who smiles is smiling at Satan. The rationale is that true Shiites are grieving over the death of the seventh-century martyrdom of Hussein, a revered figure.

Analysts say it is too early to predict to what extent the reformers' newly confirmed popular support will persuade conservatives to make new compromises with them. But the conservatives now may feel some pressure to compromise, because the vote also showed that the reformists are getting stronger over time.

One way they are doing so is through better political organization. In the run-up to the legislative elections, scores of grassroots political, professional and social organizations put out banners endorsing individual reformists -- all of whom under law ran as independents.

This was the first time in an Iranian election that political associations -- which previously have had a very limited role in elections -- have come into such highly public view. William Samii says it stands in sharp contrast to the early days of the Iranian revolution:

"Parties have started from a point in 1979 when ... people were told that parties are not really a necessity and the two main [conservative] clerical groups were all that was really needed to represent the interests of the people -- the assumption being clerics knew best what was good for the public. Whereas now, it is being seen and demonstrated that non-clerics also have a right and responsibility to represent the interests of the public."

Samii continues: "The parties still have a way to go in terms of development in the sense that we see parties operating in the Western sense. They do not present actual platforms, i.e. they don't say we will ... improve the economy by implementing Plan X ... or we will increase press freedom by revoking such-and-such law. They don't make those kinds of concrete promises and for that reason they can't be pinned down on them later on. But at least by saying we will improve something they are making a vague promise to the voters and I think that is a very promising [development]."

It now seems only a matter of time before political parties fully emerge in Iran as the democratization process continues. And that continuing strengthening of democracy may finally prove the most powerful influence on conservatives to change with the times.

If they do not, this latest election shows, they will increasingly run the risk of their own isolation as the revolution they began continues to evolve.