Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Iran’s parliamentary elections tomorrow, heavily stacked against moderate reformers, are unlikely to produce major changes in foreign policy or please U.S. and European officials hoping to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Despite an agreement last year to open its clandestine nuclear-research network to international inspection, the next Iranian government will fiercely guard the country’s right to pursue a nuclear program that could one day produce a bomb, according to Mohammed Hadi Semati, a political scientist at Tehran University.

The nuclear program “has become something like what it is in Pakistan — a source of national pride,” said Mr. Semati, now a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Many Iranians think everything else in the last 20 years has gone wrong, but nukes are one thing we’ve done well,” he said.

Ahmad Tavakoli, a leader of the Coalition of Builders of Islamic Iran, a leading conservative faction, told reporters in Tehran last week that his party would “never cede Iran’s right to reach the highest levels of nuclear technology.”

Ali Massoud Ansari, an Iranian political analyst at the University of Exeter in England, said neither the reformists nor Iran’s religious hard-liners are likely to meet Bush administration demands on the nuclear programs.

“What you’re seeing in Iran today is a rise in secular nationalism that would make the old shah blush,” he said, referring to the pro-U.S. monarch ousted in the 1979 Islamic revolution. “Politicians of all stripes have to respond to that, and I don’t think even the moderates would be ready to give up Iran’s nuclear effort.”

Many see the vote for the 290-seat Majlis, Iran’s parliament, as a foregone conclusion after the conservative-dominated Guardian Council, an appointed political watchdog group, blacklisted more than 2,300 reformist candidates, including 80 incumbents, from running.

Depending on the turnout, conservative and hard-line parties are expected to grab at least a small majority of the seats in the next parliament. Moderates now hold more than two-thirds of the seats.

Reformist leaders have denounced the Guardian Council’s move as a “parliamentary coup,” but have been unable to persuade Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s ultimate religious and political authority, to postpone the vote or allow more candidates to run.

Mr. Semati said reformist hopes of a large, popular backlash against the blacklisting have been unfulfilled, reflecting in part voter apathy over the failure of past reformist election victories to bring about major changes.

The Bush administration last week accused Iran of failing to live up to promises made in October to disclose all of its nuclear programs to international inspectors.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that the parliamentary election “is not shaping up” as a way for the Iranian people to “choose their own government.”

“How [the vote] will affect our relations, we’ll just have to see,” he said.

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