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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.

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 bring.

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 boomeranged.

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 be heeded.

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."


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