- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2000

This summer Iranian reformers captured key parliamentary leadership posts and took a significant step toward consolidating the public's desire for change in the country's theocratic system of government. That desire was first manifested in 1997 with the election of moderate President Mohammed Khatemi and more recently in the landslide victory in February of pro-reform candidates in the country's parliamentary elections.

Because of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenie's effort to quash parliamentary debate aimed at breaking the conservative stranglehold on the independent press, and because of the subsequent closure of the remaining pro-reform daily, it was made abundantly clear to Iranian reformers that winning an election was merely the beginning of what could become a very long journey.

Despite the threat posed by the continued domination of the security services and judiciary by hard-line elements loyal to the legacy of the late Ayatollah Khomenei, the greatest risk to reform lies not in conservative opposition but in the very real potential among the diverse groups comprising the reform camp in parliament to squander their electoral achievement.

Given the relative quiescence so far by the reformists to their latest setback and the acceptance by some in their leadership of the supreme leader's prerogative to scuttle parliamentary debate, it is becoming evident that the consensus that brought the reformers to power has not carried over into the legislative arena.

Representing often conflicting social, political and economic tendencies, the Khordad Front reform coalition found its most common denominator in its opposition to the hard-line monopoly on power. Having achieved its initial objective in the parliamentary setting, the Khordad Front now faces a challenge not unknown to many former opposition movements across the world: remaining united in power and articulating and enacting a coherent agenda for reform. While demands for rule of law and freedom of the press might suffice during the campaign period, in the legislative period slogans need to be translated into definable, achievable and, above all, agreed upon objectives. This is easier said than done as was proven in the case of the press bill.

While clerical representation in the parliament may have dropped to its lowest point since the establishment of the Islamic Republic (37 out of 280 seats in the new parliament), the leadership of the Khordad Front, specifically President Khatemi and parliament Speaker Mehdi Karrubi, as well as his deputies, are ranking representatives of the clerical establishment or are closely connected to it. In lay terms, this could mean that the more liberal social, economic and political agendas, such as freedom of the press, expounded by certain factions within the coalition, will not be satisfied in the current parliament. For the reform movement as a whole, this could have profound implications. Already there are fears that divisions are beginning to surface. The reform-leaning Iran News recently warned that "some MPs who entered the Majlis on the [reformist] ticket are undermining the reformists by shifting to the right." In the absence of consensus (i.e. a legislative action plan acceptable to all components of the reform movement), it is likely that the newspaper failed to make another important observation that those "shifting to the right" viewed others within the reform ranks as "shifting to the left."

This is not new ground for Iranian reformers. At the birth of the Iranian parliamentary experience in 1906, a similar situation prevailed when a diverse group of would-be reformers brought constitutionalism to what was then Persia. What was missing at that time, however, and appears to be missing today, was a strategy for retaining unity after the initial fruits of parliamentary victory.

With a new parliament having recently convened and with it a revival of democratic practices in Iran, the perfect time has presented itself for this reconciliation to take place. The first challenge for reformers is to reconcile means with objectives. As recently demonstrated, pursuing maximal positions at such an early stage is likely to antagonize the hard-line and provide an excuse for further reaction. Given the coercive means at the hard-liners disposal, reformers are faced with two options: pursuing a course of consolidation within their own ranks or inaugurating a period of confrontation with all its inherent risks.

The second challenge is the reconciling of the great diversity of opinion within reform ranks. While reformers might not all agree on all issues, there should be enough common ground after two decades of hard-line mismanagement of the state to forge a common front that can sustain the movement in the legislative period. Failure to find this common ground could lead to differences in political philosophies being exposed and the movement weakened.

The third challenge is formulating a realistic agenda for legislative action that is both achievable and reflective of society's demand for real change. This will require that the public be brought into the process. Confronted with widespread popular support for a parliamentary agenda for reform, hard-liners will be forced to carefully consider the potential consequences of their actions.

If successful in meeting these challenges, reformers will be better positioned to pursue the meaningful changes demanded by the Iranian public and in doing so should be able to resolve a debate which has hampered the nation's political development for a century. Reconciliation on the political plain should go a long way towards proving the compatibility and lack of contradiction between the various components of Iran's national identity and the public's desire for greater freedom and modernity in Iranian life.

Owen H. Kirby is a program officer for the Middle East & North Africa at the International Republican Institute (IRI) in Washington.

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