Political Winds May Be Blowing for Reformists
Iran's hard-liners appear destined to lose their grip on
power in parliamentary elections next year. Khatami advisor is favored
to lead the moderates.
By JOHN DANISZEWSKI
Los Angeles Times
October 30, 1999
TEHRAN--The door flung open to earsplitting cheers, and a diminutive,
brown-robed figure made its way into an auditorium heaving with packed
bodies, the throng chanting: "Nouri, Nouri, we love you!" and
"Welcome to the future speaker of the sixth parliament!"
The emotion Tuesday at Iran's Tehran University would suggest the closing
days of a heated political campaign. It recalled the tidal wave of adulation
two years ago when a little-known reformist candidate named Mohammad Khatami
swept aside his hard-line opponent to win the country's presidency.
The object of the applause this time was Abdollah Nouri, a key Khatami
advisor. A reformist cleric turned liberal newspaper editor, he was the
top vote-getter in Tehran's council elections in February, and now he
is the favorite to lead the reformist camp in elections for parliament
in four months--if he is not first blocked from getting on the ballot.
Judging from the reception he is already receiving, it is no wonder
that Iran's conservatives are frightened by what the next election might
On the surface, the news from Iran over the past year would seem bleak
for Khatami's reform camp. There has been the jailing of Tehran's
reformist mayor; a series of slayings of liberal intellectuals by state
intelligence agents; the arrests of 13 Iranian Jews in a mystery-shrouded
spy case that many suggest was politically motivated; a violent police
clash this summer with student protesters; and periodic closures of newspapers
and other publications demanding greater freedom and pluralism.
But rather than being beaten down, reformers, if anything, appear more
confident than ever.
In a country that lives and breathes politics, excitement already is
building for the election to choose the 270-member Majlis, or parliament.
The vote seems destined to overturn the hard-liners' grip on power in
Iran for the first time since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"If we are going to have a free parliamentary election, without
too much restriction on the opposition, the moderates will get the majority,"
predicted Tehran political scientist Hermidas Bavand of Imam Sadegh University.
"It's going to be a turning point."
To be sure, the conservatives could still throw a wrench into the works.
Without a doubt, the country's ideological watchdog, the Council of Guardians,
will try to limit the best-known reformers from running.
Nouri, for instance, is being prosecuted by a special religious court
that many here believe is a transparent bid to thwart his candidacy. In
his speech this week, he got roars of approval when he likened the court
to an "inquisition" and said he does not acknowledge its legitimacy.
Newspaper publisher Hamid Reza Jalaiepour said reformers are not worried
by the Council of Guardians, believing that it would not dare to bar every
reformer from running. He said he is only "a little bit frightened"
of the possibility that extreme hard-liners would resort to violence or
other extralegal means to rig the election.
Despite having had three successive newspapers shut down by the country's
courts this year, Jalaiepour--now puckishly publishing two more--is sanguine
about his conservative foes. Every trick they have pulled, he said, has
The election of a reformist-majority parliament would open the way to
liberalization inside Iran and a more moderate foreign policy, including
possible rapprochement with the United States, Jalaiepour predicted.
"Special privileges" enjoyed by the conservative camp to
dominate the justice system, the intelligence service, state television
and the military would be ended, he believes.
The way the political winds are blowing is already having some effect
inside the country. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, previously
viewed as the head of the right-wing camp, now seems to be edging toward
the center--recently he praised Khatami as a good man whose ideas should
And Khatami managed in August to have the notoriously hard-line head
of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, succeeded by a more moderate-speaking
jurist, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi.
One Tehran-based foreign observer believes that these are signs of political
realism on the part of conservatives, whom he expects to "go with
the flow" and accept the loss of their parliament majority next year.
"It's like a soccer game, really," the observer said. "The
old guard is puffing and panting and occasionally manages to strike the
goal posts. But in the end, the other side seems to be winning."