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
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
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