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Iran local elections test reformists

By Robin Allen in Abu Dhabi
The Financial Times
Feb. 12, 1999

For millions of Iranians the 20th anniversary of the Iranian revolution this week is a cause for celebration.

For many others, however, including President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist supporters, the forces spawned by the Islamic revolution - creatures of the underground alliance of wealthy merchants and Shia clergy - have become one of the greatest threats to the reforms espoused by the president and supported by more than 70 per cent of the electorate which swept him to office in May 1997.

These "states within a state", with access to funds and thousands of operatives, from street thugs and killer squads to less violent mosque leaders, have eluded attempts to control or dismantle them.

Most of their operations are directed from within the intelligence ministry, known officially as the information ministry; usually without the minister's knowledge.

The "information" ministry is structured along the lines of the former Soviet KGB, with internal and external agencies massively equipped with people and money, skilled in techniques of both passive and violent propaganda and disinformation.

It inherited the mantle and the financial trimmings of Savama, the secret police network created after the revolution and disbanded in 1981, and more particularly from Savak, the Shah's notorious secret police, a former ambassador to Tehran said yesterday.

It was in response to pressure from President Mohammad Khatami and reformists that the most recent information minister, Qorbanali Dorri Najafabadi, resigned this week after his ministry was forced to acknowledge that "rogue agents" were behind last year's murders of nationalist politicians and secular writers, he said.

According to Safa Haeri, the Paris-based writer and expert on Iran, the focus of hardline activists comes from the Islamic Coalition League, who form the militant wing of the Fedayan Eslamii, the name given to the coalition of merchants and clerics which organised opposition to the Shah from the 1960s onwards.

With the exception of Mr Khatami and some younger or more technocratic officials, many of Iran's senior figures were members of Fedayan Eslamii in the glory days of opposition to the Shah.

Prominent members include Habibollah Asgaroladi, a member of a prominent merchant family and a principal member of the inner circle around Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Alinaghi Khamouschi, president of the Iranian chamber of commerce and industries, Mohammad Araqi, head of one of the bonyad, the notoriously secretive state foundations which inherited conglomerates owned by the Shah's family.

None of the figures central to Iran's established institutions escapes the attentions of the committee.

They regard President Khatami as an Iranian "Gorbachev", and his slow but so far successful struggle to secure the rule of law and a civil society for all Iranians, as a danger to "pure" Islam and a global Islamic society.

They perceive Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei as "not merciless enough", according to one analyst, too old and too weak to stand up to the fundamental social and institutional reforms espoused by the president.

The progressive dismantlement of the hardliners' network is one of the most important aims of Mr Khatami's political reforms. His programme, analysts say, will get a shot-in-the-arm if his supporters do well in this month's municipal elections.

It will be the first time, analysts point out, that local elections have ever been held in Iran; in itself a significant achievement for Mr Khatami.


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