Iran's myriad social and economic problems are growing worse in large part because of the country's contradictory political system, in which unelected conservative-leaning bodies can overrule moves made by the executive and legislative branches of government. Some conservatives, whose political fortunes have been on the rise for several years, now believe they have found a possible ally needed to defeat their reformist rivals the Basij militia.
Conservatives have a two-tiered strategy to achieve victory in the ongoing power struggle, according to several reform-minded observers. One approach they characterize as "soft" and the other "hard." The soft approach relies on continued voter apathy, as seen in the recent municipal elections [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Conservatives believe that low voter turnout in parliamentary elections could pave the way for ballot-box successes that leave them in control of the legislature.
At the same time, conservatives feel they need a force capable of handling tough tasks, including containing demonstrations and other expressions of discontent. That's where the Basij militia comes in. The Basij militia, which emerged shortly after 1979's Islamic revolution, now comprises as many as a million members. The group recruits disaffected or dispossessed youth from schools, neighborhoods, workplaces and villages; members receive training in small-arms combat from conservative agencies. In 1992, parliament formally authorized the Basij to enforce moral codes in the streets. While reformists in President Mohammed Khatami's administration have tried to promote more transparent policing, they have never rebuked the Basij.
So far the conservatives' soft approach seems to be going relatively well. Conservatives view the current disorganization within the reformist camp as providing an opportunity for a political rout. Accordingly, conservatives are intensifying direct pressure on reformists. Mohamed Reza Khatami, deputy head of the parliament (and the president's brother), has confirmed that "Parallel Security Centers" have embarked on creating large files on leading reformist activists for the purpose of prosecution.
A foundation is also being prepared for a conservative comeback at the polls. The Council of Guardians a conservative body that vets political candidates has successfully stalled two bills that President Khatami proposed in September 2002, which could open elections to more candidates. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Many observers expect that reformists will effectively be barred from parliamentary elections this winter. According to these people, conservatives will issue their own slate of economic and social reforms and may loosen some stringent rules.
While hoping for electoral triumph, conservatives are concurrently preparing for tough action. Indeed, many conservatives consider the threat of instability to be very real. Such instability could arise from several sources, including a pressure campaign mounted by the United States. Some believe unrest could be triggered by another episode like the death of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage after guards detained her for taking pictures of protests outside a large Tehran prison. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Any conservative effort to crack down on civil liberties and undertake mass arrests would require military or paramilitary backing. A longtime observer of Iranian politics, who spoke on condition of anonymity, sees the Basij militia as a crucial plank of the conservative "hard" strategy. "To a great extent," the observer told EurasiaNet recently, "whoever wins the hearts and minds of the Basij can determine the course of developments."
The extent of Basij militia loyalty to the conservative cause remains in doubt. Certainly there are many points of common interest that push the Basij towards the conservative camp, but the militia in the past has exhibited an independent streak. For example, during and after the crackdown that followed this summer's street demonstrations, several Basij branches condemned the involvement of plain-clothes vigilantes inside university campuses. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. The Tehran University Basij Organization reportedly lambasted a lenient corruption verdict in March as "a travesty of justice" and an "affront to the memories of the martyrs."
Conservatives may be betting that Basij dissatisfaction with Khatami's administration will help cement an anti-reformist alliance. Some observers believe a pretext would be needed to formally push the Basij into becoming the enforcers of the conservative agenda. However, such pretexts such as a public reformist denunciation of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, to whom the Basij are fiercely loyal has not materialized.
Ardeshir Moaveni is a freelance journalist who specializes in Iranian and Afghanistani affairs.