The February 28 local elections exposed broad rifts among reform-minded supporters of President Mohammed Khatami. Conservative candidates thrashed reformers at the polls, gaining control of municipal legislative bodies across Iran. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A major factor in the conservative triumph was voter apathy.
While local political observers say that it is still possible for the reform movement to regroup, most believe the local election has drastically changed the political landscape in Iran. The rising influence of conservative forces, some observers add, will complicate Iran's ability to break out of its present isolation, and to prevent a possible confrontation with the United States.
According to Western media reports, some European diplomats in Tehran say the conservative triumph in the local elections will complicate opportunities for European nations to engage Tehran against US wishes. The Bush administration considers Iran to be a member of the "axis of evil." The Tehran diplomats indicate the local vote results may serve to strengthen the position of those in Washington who support a confrontational stance against the Islamic republic.
Ironically, the February 28 vote was the freest election in Iran in recent times. With the conservative Guardian Council effectively barred by the constitution from vetting candidates, many opposition members and liberal dissidents were able to field their own candidates for the first time. None of these candidates appeared to motivate a weary and exhausted electorate, though.
The reform movement in Iran owes its existence to three social groups: reformist politicians and activists; the student movement; and the independent press. The latter two groups in particular have suffered from a crackdown carried out largely by unelected state institutions under conservative control. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
During the crackdown, Khatami and the people around him did little to assist their political allies, other than offering verbal expressions of sympathy and regret. Observers explain that Iran's complex political structure, along with the rough balance of power between reformists and conservatives, greatly limited Khatami's options. Nevertheless the lack of tangible support for repressed journalists and students cost the reformists a significant amount of political capital.
Two recent events dramatize Khatami's dramatic loss of support. Shortly before the local elections, a student group, the Office for Strengthening Unity, officially and formally distanced itself from the Khatami camp. Announcing that the reformist agenda has failed in most of its objectives, it declared: "We no longer consider ourselves as a loyal member of the reform movement." In its place, the students are now calling for the formation of what they call the "Broad Front for Achieving Democracy."
A student activist calling himself Reza told EurasiaNet recently: "We are just fed up with these people [i.e., the reformists]. They just talk and talk and allow themselves to be used as cannon fodder for the hardliners." He added bitterly: "If they are going to lose all their legitimacy that's their business. But they should now count us out of their games."
In early March, during an emergency session devoted to the issue of repression against journalists, the Journalists Union, representing the bulk of the country's journalists, attacked reformist politicians for their failure to confront conservatives. The meeting, which was held in an often tense and emotional atmosphere, ended in calls for acts of civil disobedience and appeals to international bodies to help end human rights abuses against journalists.
The electoral defeat and the loss of crucial allies has triggered acrimonious debate among reformists, who until recently seemed to take public goodwill for granted. Many prominent reformists, starting with Khatami himself, are calling for a reassessment of past strategy. Already, some the leaders of the Iran Participation Front (IPF), the main reformist group, hint that major changes may be in the offing.
There is talk of party-building as well as realignment. One IPF leader, Sayed Mostafa Tajzadeh has implicitly called for confrontational tactics that would galvanize the population. Meanwhile many parliamentarians are asking Khatami to reshuffle his cabinet.
In the conservative camp too, the election has sparked debate. Observers believe that the first victory in several years for the hardliners has convinced important elements among them of the wisdom of playing by the rules of the democratic game. There is also talk in conservative quarters of a "restructuring."
The US military presence in Iraq is lending a sense of urgency to political restructuring debates, especially in the reformist camp. Another ballot-box setback like the one experienced in the local elections, with most voters staying away from the polls, may deliver the coup de grace to the reformists' attempt to build civil society in Iran. An Iran under firm conservative control is less likely to avoid confrontation with the Bush administration.
Ardeshir Moaevi is a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian and Afghan affairs.