- 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.”

The biggest reformist bloc in parliament — indeed, the best-known political group in the country — was mostly barred from running by a right-wing council appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top religious and political figure and the successor to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

A group of political unknowns calling themselves the Developers of Islamic Iran won the biggest bloc of votes, including about 30 of the 38 seats representing the capital. They adopted many of the good-government slogans of the reform movement, and promised not to crack down on women with hair peeping out of their head coverings or young people listening to pop music, as hard-liners have done in the past.

“Our goal is to solve economic problems,” said Emad Ghetassi, who works in the group’s public relations office. “The last parliament ignored economic problems. We’ve promised to solve unemployment. We’ve promised to increase people’s purchasing power and solve the inflation problem.”

But even Ayatollah Khomeini vowed he would address people’s economic troubles, just before his revolution plunged the country into a quarter-century economic abyss from which it is only now emerging. Many say that the hard-liners who have taken over the parliament represent two strains — one pragmatic and focused on the economy, the other ideological.

“One part of them are these unknown people who are making slogans about development and economic growth,” said Rajabali Mazroui, one of the reformist members of parliament barred from running again by a council of hard-line clerics and jurists. “Another part of them are the very radical, harsh right-wingers. It’s not clear who’s going to come out on top.”

Radicals rule

Many in Iran shiver at the prospect of newly triumphant religious radicals cracking down on human rights and pursuing an international policy certain to alienate the West and the United States, which has criticized the clerical regime’s attempts to obtain nuclear technology.

In the past week, the hard-line judiciary already has closed most of the country’s few remaining liberal newspapers, and the Foreign Ministry has admitted under pressure it obtained nuclear material on the black market.

Mr. Mazroui said reformers that were booted from the government plan to return to society at large and try to regroup, joining the hundreds of new nonprofits, civic associations and literary and political groups that have been forming throughout Iran.

“We thought we could compromise with the [religious] conservatives,” he said. “Now we understand it’s not possible.”

But analysts say a new conflict could be brewing between religious fundamentalists who want to tighten social controls and battle Western culture, and pragmatists who want to ensure the clerical regime’s survival by adapting it to the new domestic and international realities.

The two groups united temporarily for the sake of defeating the reformists, but a new split, caused by divergent social and economic interests, may emerge.

Though Iran is growing economically, this country of 68 million people faces growing income disparities and unemployment of its educated, youthful population.

The young have increasingly little taste for the traditional values and Islamic piety advocated by state propaganda organs.

“The country faces a crisis of legitimacy,” said Ramin Jahanbegloo, a scholar at the Cultural Research Center, a Tehran think tank. “It’s a crisis that’s been growing since 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini died. The young people, the new generation, are moving and further and further away from the system.”

The reform movement, analysts said, was an attempt to alleviate the crisis while playing by the rules of Iran’s system. Beginning in 1997, President Mohammed Khatami and his allies took control of the government while seeking to turn Iran into an Islamic democracy. But faced with the vested interests of clerics who control the legal system, the experiment failed.

Internationally, Iran fared no better under a weak reformist government constantly sabotaged by hard-liners. “No one knew whom to talk to,” said Mr. Jahanbegloo. “Iran became a country with double figures and double messages.”

The pragmatists talk of a new approach and a new social contract — a “Chinese model” in which the country would open itself to foreign investment, provide jobs as well as limited social freedom, and continue to stifle political dissent and activism, all the while keeping violent, hard-line elements — the regime’s shock troops — in check.

“They know that if the hard-liners start putting pressure on people, it’s dangerous,” said Mr. Ghezelbash, the investment analyst. “If people get beaten up on the head, they might go home. But they’ll go home angrier and angrier and eventually blow up,” he said.

Pragmatists — epitomized by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and U.S.-educated state television director Ali Larijani — would like to “water down the existing severe social atmosphere, implement reforms, give minor social freedoms to the society and develop a positive approach with foreign powers,” including Washington, said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international relations in Tehran.

Looking east

The Chinese model would be no easy fit in Iran. China’s market of 1.2 billion consumers makes it a land of great potential riches, where corporations will look the other way when the government tortures dissidents or Beijing gets into shouting matches with Washington.

Though Iran has reformed foreign-investment laws and set up tax holidays for investors, its market is paltry.

“Iran is an interesting market, but it’s not China,” said the Tehran representative of a French corporation. “There’s an understanding among the companies doing business here that there are things the government can and can’t get away with in terms of human rights.”

Moreover, additional foreign investment will mean foreigners bringing Western and secular values, demanding social freedoms and introducing new ideas.

“If you are building a foreign company here, it means bringing hundreds of families here,” said Mr. Hourcade, the Iran scholar who has spent his life scouring this country’s farthest corners. “The sociology of these cities will change. The social climate will change.”

That would alienate the hard-liners and the pious traditionalists who voted in droves for the religious candidates in the recent election, who believe Iran should implement and export its Islamic values.

Mr. Bavand, the international-relations scholar, predicts these religiously oriented forces might stymie the Chinese model of pragmatists, who remain unable to solve Iran’s unemployment, brain drain, drug addiction, corruption and international-relations problems.

Indeed, for the first 18 years after the Islamic revolution, the various religious factions held near-monopolies on power in Iran and were unable to solve any domestic problems without relying on Iran’s oil revenues or any international conflicts without resorting to name-calling and demonizing foreigners.

“You look at them now, it’s the same individuals,” said Mr. Bavand. “Previously, they had the same authority, and they weren’t able to do a thing.”

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