Iranian politicians reconsider their prospects after polls

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The surprise election to the Iranian presidency of a radical, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, has deprived Iranian reformers and some conservatives of institutional power and influence. They must now reconsider their future political plans, as splits may emerge in both factions.

Iran’s veteran revolutionaries, who have shared the offices of state since the 1979 revolution that toppled the Persian monarchy, are mulling their next move after the surprise victory in the 24 June presidential elections of a relative political newcomer, the very conservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

His victory surprised many voters, but also elder statesmen like Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a two-time former president who seemed the leading candidate immediately before the vote, and Mehdi Karrubi, a former parliamentary speaker and leading ally of the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. Both have bitterly denounced electoral foul play, though neither is taking legal action.

The elections have given conservatives, who term themselves “fundamentalists” for their stated devotion to “fundamental” religious and revolutionary principles, control of the three branches of government. They have likewise ousted Khatami’s reformist allies from the institutional positions they would need to pursue even part of a now stagnant process of political reforms.

Within the “fundamentalist” front, a current known as the Developers considers itself the victor of the elections. Ahmadinejad was their favoured candidate, they control the government of Tehran where Ahmadinejad was mayor, and are influential in parliament. They have vowed to help the poor and cleanse the Islamic Republic of corruption.

They may in time move away from regime veterans and traditionalist clerics over foreign, economic or even social policies, and cause a split in conservative ranks. Reformers may also split: between those who wish to pursue a gradualist approach within the system, and more vigorous proponents of democracy and human rights.

“There will be splits in the reformist and fundamentalist currents,” conservative legislator Kamaledin Shahriari told the ISNA news agency on 25 June. “I expect the traditional fundamentalist current will begin its…retirement,” he said, to be succeeded by “reformist fundamentalists” forming the “second and third generations of that current.”

Hamid Qazvini of the Assembly of the Forces of the Imam’s Path, a reformist grouping, told ISNA on 26 June that in time “new dividing lines will emerge” in the conservative faction, with supporters of the new president on one side, separated “by a very serious marking line” from “older and more traditional” sectors of the Right.

Conservatives prefer to highlight their post-election unity for now. Mohammad Nabi Habibi, the head of the right-wing Islamic Coalition Party told ISNA on 1 July that there will be no conservative split, or confrontation between the “traditional, fundamentalist current and the Developers.” Anyone, he said, who believes in the ideas of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution, clerical rule and religion is a “fundamentalist.”

Initial differences will likely emerge over cabinet posts. Former legislator Ali Nazari told ISNA on 3 July that the Developers want to shape the cabinet as the new president’s closest allies. But other “fundamentalist” members of parliament, which must approve cabinet choices, also want a say, and they are not all with the Developers, Nazari said.

Unconfirmed reports that Ahmadinejad might appoint allies from the Tehran city council to simultaneous cabinet posts are already proving controversial. Critics say the move would be illegal, but some judiciary officials have said not. Laws in Iran seem “elastic,” as reformers have often complained, and controversial decisions often become legal when opponents fail to overturn them.

Across the political spectrum, there have been calls for unity and the formation of political parties with set programmes. Cleric Hussein Musavi-Tabrizi said on 27 June that continued reforms need “strong parties,” “Aftab-e Yazd” reported on 28 June. “People like Hashemi [Rafsanjani], Karrubi and Khatami should form national, inclusive parties,” that can “penetrate” into the people and find out their “basic demands,” he said.

Jalal Jalalizadeh of the reformist Participation Front told the ILNA news agency on 4 July that reformers should unite around the common goal of democracy and human rights. “Reformist parties may have different views but these elections showed they need to unite in the face of their opponents,” he said. The “realization of democracy in Iran,” he said, is the “common aim of reformers.” Colleague Elaheh Kulai said the Participation Front is making “organized efforts” to “rebuild, and review the past,” before it can pursue reforms, “Aftab-e Yazd” reported on 5 July.

Here, a split may be over the pace of the march toward democracy, but also on the recurrent clash of pragmatism and stated ideals in Iranian politics. Kamaleddin Shahriari told ISNA on 25 June that those more in tune with the “values and institutions” of the regime can continue to “play their role inside the governing system,” while shunning the “radical current.” Moderate reformers have often complained about “radical” democracy proponents derailing a measured reforms programme.

Hamid Qazvini said on 26 June that “certainly there will be realignments” among reformers. He anticipates three groupings. Those who sought a “democracy front” before the elections, he says, “will continue their work,” and form a “new block,” while two other groups may coalesce around Karrubi and Rafsanjani, the latter being “lucky in that he can attract around him forces” from among reformers and conservatives, he added. A democracy and human rights front is already forming, and members of the Participation Front have met to write a manifesto, member Hadi Qabel told ILNA on 5 July. The text will be presented to reformist groups, who will then decide on formally joining the front, he added.

Karrubi has formed a party called the National Confidence party, which will be “popular” and “inclusive,” and determined to safeguard democratic rights within the present constitution, “Etemaad” daily reported on 6 July. He has been a cautious critic of Iran’s political system, playing the role of an authorized “bad boy:” deploring abuses, but within bounds tolerated by the system. This has ensured, so far, that he has not been jailed like some former ministers or journalists. Perhaps intending to re-brand himself as a more determined friend of democracy, Karrubi resigned from all state and political advisory positions after the presidential polls.

Rafsanjani may in turn attract partisans around an Islamic Moderation Party, informally mentioned since the June elections. He retains influence as the head of the Expediency Council, the country’s top political arbitrating body, whose “expedient” decisions are considered definitive and binding. But that influence may decline, as the council he chairs may be asked to arbitrate in fewer disputes now that a conservative-dominated parliament is working in relative harmony with an equally conservative Guardian Council, the body that verifies the legality of legislation, and can reject bills. Also, Rafsanjani has suffered two recent election defeats, in June, and in February 2000, when he failed to win a seat for Tehran in parliamentary polls. He is reputed, and ill-reputed, to be the nexus of a class of deal-makers and affairistes that include family members, for which he may have lost votes to Ahmadinejad.

Tehran-based academic Sadeq Zibakalam believes he faces a choice now between remaining “a part of the governing system,” or joining “the democracy front,” “Aftab-e Yazd” reported on 7 July. As an “important weight,” he said, many ousted officials will gather around Rafsanjani, and his decision to join reformers would be “very important for the movement,” he said.

Even without state positions, Zibakalam believes that reformers remain “considerable” and “educated” social personalities, and could, if organized, form a “strong social and political group.” But he was not sure they could unite.

Presently, conservative groups face two questions. Who, in the immediate term, will be in the cabinet and who in coming months or years, will become dominant among conservatives? Will young radicals push out their elders, or will veterans use a proven resilience to prevent that? Will Rafsanjani form a centrist block, and deprive reformers of his assistance, or throw caution to the wind and pin his fate on a hypothetical transition to democracy? Reformers in turn face the need to regain their principal and perhaps only political asset: public support. They would need to persuade Iranians that they are focused, and able if re-elected, to deliver on promises of democracy and respect for rights. That will take some doing.