'Dismal science' in back seat at Iran poll
By Jonathan Lyons
TEHRAN, Feb 8 (Reuters) - The rough-and-tumble politics of Iran's factional
struggle has pushed key economic issues off the agenda of next week's parliamentary
As a result, many of the most crucial questions that will face the 290
deputies during their four-year terms are getting short shrift from the
more than 6,500 candidates as they campaign for the February 18 contest.
Analysts say this phenomenon will hurt the conservatives, who have been
unable to use the economic hardship of ordinary people against the policies
of moderate President Mohammad Khatami and his pro-reform allies.
``Unfortunately, under the current political atmosphere economic issues
have been sidelined by the politicians,'' said Issa Saharkhiz, editor of
economic daily Akhbar-e Eqtesad.
``In talking with different political figures, I have told them the
one great issue you are not paying enough attention to is economics,''
he told Reuters in an interview.
On the surface, the case for a vigourous economic debate appears clear-cut.
Among the pressing issues facing the next parliament are:
-- Foreign trade and the future role, if any, of the private sector
in what remains a state monopoly. This would require major changes in existing
-- Privatisation and, beyond that, the broader question of the state's
place in the economy.
-- Foreign investment and the role of multi-nationals.
Existing laws restrict foreign investment in Iran's most attractive
sectors, such as mining and energy. This will also require significant
At the same time, annual inflation, at around 20 percent, remains a
constant worry, while unemployment is rampant, particularly in less-developed
Figures published on Tuesday showed unemployment ranging from 31 percent
in Lorestan province, in the west, to a low of 8.8 percent in Semnan province,
to the north.
``We are now in an economic paradox,'' said economist and commentator
"There is a lot of social tension and we need a minimum six percent
growth rate per year to relieve this tension.
"But these same tensions prevent the economic reforms we need."
For almost two years, conservatives have hammered at Khatami's campaign
for a civil society, saying Iran is too weak economically to bear the dislocation
of radical reform.
At the same time, Khatami's coalition cabinet, roughly split between
free-marketeers and advocates of state planning, has proven too divided
to implement a comprehensive programme.
The result, say critics, is an ill-defined policy that has been rescued
only by recent strength in prices for oil, Iran's leading source of hard
currency. Conservative candidates have tried to attack the reform movement
for its economic record.
``If someone sacrifices economic growth to political and cultural reform,
then society will face problems. If development is not multi-faceted, we
will go backwards,'' Mohammad Reza Bahonar, who heads the main conservative
coalition, told a news conference.
``We believe that giving slogans costs less than taking action.''
However, public opinion surveys indicate Khatami has lost none of his
support, still hovering around the 70-percent level he received in the
1997 presidential election.
Now he and his allies hope that same popularity can be translated into
parliamentary seats, breaking the conservatives' hold on the legislature.
The Islamic Iran Particpation Front, closely affiliated with the president,
is confident that economic malaise can only be addressed after substantial
political reform is enacted. And they say the voters agree.
``Economic activities are only possible under conditions of political
and judicial clarity, and people are aware of this in both micro- and macro-economic
matters,'' said the Front's economics spokesman, Mohsen Safaei-Farahani.
That proposition will be put to the test late next week, in the first
round of parliamentary balloting.
Even some of the sceptics have been forced to move with the times. Saharkiz
said his own economic daily is devoting a large share of its pre-election
coverage to political issues.