- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2000

Tomorrow, Iran will again be convulsed by a parliamentary election, in which more than 6,000 "politically correct candidates will vie for seats in the mullahs' Majlis. Fundamental change is not an option, because all genuine opponents and parties are banned in Iran, and even veteran supporters of the ruling regime must be approved as candidates.

This process is hardly democratic, but that should come as no surprise under a regime that is among the world's worst violators of human rights. Mass executions (42 people were hanged in one suburban prison in the last five months), arbitrary arrests, and political assassinations remain standard tools of the mullahs' domestic policy.

Meanwhile, "Iran's use of terrorism as a political tool has not changed since President Khatami took office in August 1997" and Iran "remains the most active state sponsor." (Reuters, Feb. 1, 2000) Nevertheless, some in the West are hoping for a victory for "the moderates," who will usher in a "new era of reform."

After the massive unrest that erupted in Tehran and 18 other cities in July, the mullahs' president, Mohammed Khatami, effectively abandoned his claims to reform, civil society and "the rule of law." To prevent the collapse of the clerical regime and, more acutely, to save his own skin, Mr. Khatami has fallen in step with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But Mr. Khatami's double-cross has not quelled the power struggle. As the elections draw nigh, various heavy-weights, daggers drawn, are vying for a bigger slice of the pie.

Relying on major institutions of power, Mr. Khamenei has set about maintaining his domination of the Majlis. He has tried, imprisoned, or politically excluded mullahs like Abdollah Nouri. He has ordered the closure of several pro-Khatami newspapers, and set in motion the vetting process by the Council of Guardians.

In an interesting twist, Mr. Khamenei has reopened the political process to the former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, heavily favored for parliament speakership. Ironically, Mr. Khamenei is looking for support from the very man he prevented in 1997 from seeking a third term as president.

Commenting on this move, Massoud Rajavi, president of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the parliament-in-exile, said that "By elevating Rafsanjani's position, Khamenei intends to bridge the schism within the regime. Khamenei may consider such delaying tactics useful for buying time, but in the hellish power struggle raging within this faltering regime."

The other factions have not been idle. In what has been dubbed "the war of the interrogators," some in Mr. Khatami's camp, among them former torturers and Intelligence Ministry interrogators, have revealed bits and pieces of former colleagues' pasts. Both Mr. Khatami and Mr. Khamenei have drawn red lines that all factions must respect, to prevent the strife from consuming the "Islamic Republic."

As for the elections, regardless of which faction gains the upper hand, the power struggle cannot be contained. If Mr. Khamenei's scheme to make Mr. Rafsanjani the next speaker succeeds, the consequent troika leadership will ultimately aggravate the crisis. For Mr. Khamenei, it would mean sharing the powers of velayat-e faqih, the principle of clerical rule, with Mr. Rafsanjani. Notwithstanding possible tactical, short-run advantages, that would be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Wishful thinkers in the West prefer to disregard the signs of the times. The July unrest was described as "the worst since the aftermath of the 1979 revolution." (AFP, Dec. 14, 1999) The public's profound discontent is further reflected in relentless military attacks by the Resistance, the latest of which, a mortar strike on Feb. 5, struck at the offices of the mullahs' leader, Mr. Khamenei, and former President Rafsanjani.

The dramatic expansion of the Resistance's military operations in late 1999 and early 2000 has revealed the mullahs' vulnerability. This surge is the natural culmination of an incessant wave of protests, strikes and street clashes. In December and January alone, 122 major protests erupted across Iran. The mullahs are also aghast at a growing recourse among young people to armed resistance, especially after the brutal crackdown on the student movement. Young Iranians have learned, at great expense, that this regime understands only the language of force. Dozens of Revolutionary Guards have been attacked.

The July uprising attested to the Iranian people's rejection of the clerical regime itself, whether embodied by Mr. Khamenei or Mr. Khatami. As we enter the new millennium, the regime is at the mercy of its own irreconcilable power struggle. The way is open for a triumphant thrust by the Iranian people's Resistance.

Mohammad Mohaddessin is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

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