- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

TEHRAN — The momentous takeover of Iran’s parliament by hard-liners in Friday’s elections means a new era for the country, and likely the end to the Islamic republic’s seven-year experiment in softening its harsh domestic and international policies.

Although hard-liners have returned to prominent positions of power, their options are limited, analysts here say, by Iran’s new social, economic and geopolitical realities. These include a restless, underemployed generation of young people intolerant of religious social controls and a lively civic culture filled with unofficial associations and groups.

The population is savvy, and has access to the Internet and satellite television.

Other realities include an ailing economy in need of foreign investment and a ubiquitous U.S. military intolerant of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

After Shirin Ebadi’s win of the Nobel Peace Prize, they also include a sharpened international focus on the clerical regime’s treatment of citizens.

President Bush reacted yesterday in Washington, saying:

“I am very disappointed in the recently disputed parliamentary elections in Iran. The disqualification of some 2,400 candidates by the unelected Guardian Council deprived many Iranians of the opportunity to freely choose their representatives. I join many in Iran and around the world in condemning the Iranian regime’s efforts to stifle freedom of speech, including the closing of two leading reformist newspapers in the run-up to the election. Such measures undermine the rule of law and are clear attempts to deny the Iranian people’s desire to freely choose their leaders.

“The United States supports the Iranian people’s aspirations to live in freedom, enjoy their God-given rights, and determine their own destiny.”

In the same vein, Bernard Hourcade, a noted Iran scholar who has traveled to the United States at least once a year for the past 35 years, said in Tehran: “Everyone in Iran, even the right-wingers, knows that human rights is on the agenda.”

Open for business

Indeed, the election comes as Iran prepares to reopen its economy to the world for the first time since Iranians toppled the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. The French car manufacturer Renault signed a deal in October to invest $750 million in Iran over the next few years. Last week, Turkcell, a Turkish company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, won a contract to build a mobile-phone network, and Japan agreed to invest $2 billion in developing oil fields.

“If there’s a huge crackdown on human rights in Iran, there’s going to be huge pressure on these companies to leave,” said Ali Ghezelbash, an analyst at a Tehran-based investment consulting firm. “These companies don’t want to be seen as supporting a despotic government.”

Religious hard-liners took control of the parliament after a short, troubled political season filled with comical election charades, such as people suddenly lining up and pretending to vote when reporters arrived and candidates running at the order of their well-connected bosses.

“I think they awarded some of my votes to other candidates,” said Homa Nasseri, an independent liberal who failed to win a seat. “Based on my campaign supporters’ estimates, I thought I would receive 15,000 to 20,000 votes. Instead, I had 500 votes. I’m very discouraged.”

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