Iran is heading toward a showdown between reformists and conservatives that potentially could transform of the country's political system. Reformist leaders say that an ongoing political dispute surrounding upcoming parliamentary elections could give rise to "despotism."
On February 4, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Ayatollah Khamenei sought to defuse the dispute, which centers on the decision of the conservative-dominated Guardian Council an unelected institution charged with ensuring that political developments conform to Islamic guidelines to disqualify roughly 2,400 candidates, most of them reformists, from the February 20 parliamentary election. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Khamenei, who has the final word in all religious and political issues in Iran, asked the Guardian Council to review its disqualification decisions.
At the same time, Khamenei insisted that the parliamentary vote would proceed as scheduled, overriding reformist calls for the election to be put off. Khamenei effectively dismissed the reformists' contention that conservatives were rigging the parliamentary vote. The disqualifications, as they currently stand, would prevent reformists from mounting electoral challenges for more than half of the parliamentary seats up for grabs. "There is no knot that cannot be untied, and every conflict has a solution," the IRNA news agency quoted Khamenei as saying.
Citing the recent mass resignation of reform-minded MPs, the supreme leader cautioned reformists against provocative political action, hinting that anyone who disrupted the electoral process would face criminal prosecution. "One is not authorized to shun his duty because of his objection to a method or an event," Khamenei said. "Refraining from fulfilling a task in the form of resignation is haram (forbidden on religious grounds."
On February 5, the guardian council announced the results of its review, reinstating only 55 of the banned candidates. That prompted reformists to reiterate a vow, first made February 2, to effectively boycott the election. Under the reformist plan, reformist politicians would not participate in the election, while reform-minded voters would be asked to go to the polls and submit blank ballots.
The election also faces another threat from provincial governor-generals, who are appointed by reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami. The regional representatives issued a letter on February 4 urging the postponement of the elections. The letter expressed "serious concerns" about whether the vote, if held on schedule, would be "free, fair and competitive," according to IRNA.
Reformists have been critical of Khatami's behavior during the crisis. Though nominally an ideological ally, Khatami has been ineffectual in pressing for a reversal of the Guardian Council disqualifications, reformists say.
The disqualification crisis is triggering an all-out struggle for control over control of Iran's political destiny, some political observers contend. A confrontational mood between reformist and conservatives forces has marked Iranian politics since the 1979 foundation of the Islamic republic. Until recently, the full extent of the tension was kept from public view, as the two camps relied on closed-door negotiations to mediate their often bitter differences concerning the nature and shape of Iran's political structure, which seeks to blend Islam with republican principles.
The current row has forced the reformist-conservative confrontation into the open. Analysts believe conservatives now see an opportunity, amid widespread popular apathy regarding politics, to crush the reformists and impose their political agenda, in which the republican aspects of the Islamic republic would be considerably diminished, if not eliminated.
Just four years ago, in the aftermath of their 2000 electoral landslide, reformists appeared poised to achieve a decisive political victory. Their inability to implement reforms, however, bred popular frustration and alienated a large segment of society from the political process. Conservatives took advantage of the popular alienation to counterattack, steadily eroding the reformists' ability to govern. Conservatives command the support of only about 15 percent of the electorate, political experts estimate. Yet, given the extent of electoral apathy in Iran, their numbers are believed sufficient to sway the parliamentary election, as well as the upcoming presidential vote.
Though now clearly on the defensive, reformists appear to be stiffening for what could prove a last stand. Speaking at a February 4 rally, reformist MP Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeni said any conservative effort to overhaul the Islamic republic would ultimately fail. "If some people have decided to restore despotism in Iran, they should know that it will be for a very brief period," IRNA quoted him as saying.
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a specialist on Iranian and Afghan affairs and is a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet.