At a time when Iran finds itself under increasing international pressure over its nuclear program, the country's domestic political balance is coming under increasing strain. A new Iranian neo-conservative movement, comprised mostly of young and fervent advocates of Islamic republican ideals, is making a bid to seize control of Iran's political agenda.
It is too soon to tell whether the power play by neo-conservatives, many of whom operate under an umbrella group called Abadgaran (The Developers of Islamic Iran), will succeed. If it does, there could be a marked increase in international tension hovering over the Middle East. At the very least, Iran seems destined to experience domestic political turbulence in the immediate future.
The Iranian neo-cons have surprised political observers by moving quickly to advance a hard-line legislative agenda in parliament. The Abadgaran faction has pushed for new laws that effectively hamper foreign investment, make it more difficult for the government to negotiate deals with foreign companies and roll back privatization plans.
The pending legislation has already caused problems for Iranian diplomacy. President Mohammad Khatami recently was forced to call off a visit to Turkey, where he had planned to sign commercial and security agreements that had been the subject of months of painstaking negotiations.
Foreign investors have indicated that if the pending legislation is enacted, existing international business relationships could be severely damaged, if not destroyed. Andreas Gabriel, head of Renault's Iranian subsidiary Renault-Pars told Iranian reporters in Paris that even watered-down legislation could result in a dramatic decline in foreign investment in Iran. "Even if these bills are drastically modified in weeks to come, the result for investors will be profound," he said.
Abadgaran's aggressive pursuit of its political vision seems to have caught not only Khatami-aligned reformists off guard, it also has surprised Old-Guard conservatives namely the actual participants in the 1979 Islamic revolution whose idealism has faded over subsequent decades. The young neo-cons still tenaciously believe in the earlier utopian notions of the revolution; a theocratic and authoritarian state structure; an egalitarian and state-owned economic system; and a messianic foreign policy.
Many political observers did not expect drastic change when conservative forces gained control of parliament in the controversial election in February. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Conservatives have only limited public support, and relied heavily on the apathy of the electorate to stage their political comeback. Abadgaran, however, has confounded the expectation that the conservatives would have no choice but to embrace moderation.
A September 24 editorial in the conservative paper Ressalat indicated that many members of the Old Guard believe Abadgaran is trying to take Iran in a dangerous direction. "We had all accepted it that the new parliament should be free of tension and discord particularly with the government," the paper said. "But instead, an image is being formed that sensationalism, politicking, and above all, heady radicalism and extremism are becoming the norm there."
Abadgaran adherents, many of whom have served as commanders in Iran's Revolutionary Guard, believe that generation change is needed to safeguard the Islamic revolution. Most are relatively unknown politicians, with little or no public record. This, they hope, can help them gain public approval, or at least a large enough share of it so that they can effectively govern.
Two trends in recent years played key roles in the creation of Abadgaran: the rise of reformists under Khatami at home, and the ascendancy of the Bush administration in Washington harboring notions of "regime change" in Tehran. The twin threats to conservatives' political power in Iran forced a tactical change: Old Guard leaders gave the young neo-cons an opening, hoping to harness the youngsters' energy in efforts to neutralize reformists, blunt Bush administration pressure and reinvigorate the stagnant economy.
The rise of Abadgaran certainly helped conservatives outmaneuver reformists in the domestic political arena. Now, with the reformists in retreat, Abadgaran members clearly want to develop into the dominant faction within the conservative camp. In striving to do so, the movement has attracted the backing of the Revolutionary Guards and many hardliners within the political and security establishments, as well as a significant number of religiously-inclined members of Iran's lower and middle classes.
At present, Abadgaran is using parliamentary patronage and favors to expand its support within the broader conservative community. For instance, Parliament recently allocated $800 million to the Imam Rescue Committee, a conservative social welfare organization that was believed to be heading for a major anti-corruption investigation just two months ago. Meanwhile, in an effort to cement good-will with hardliners, Abadgaran MPs have worked on legislation that would place the non-partisan Ministry of Intelligence under the control of the conservative-dominated judiciary.
Over the near term, Abadgaran appears determined to crush the reformists as a political force. The experts suggest that Abadgaran's recent legislative push is designed to deny reformists a legacy on which they could mount a viable campaign to retain the presidency in the May 2005 election. Some observers also believe Abadgaran may spearhead an effort to impeach members of Khatami's administration, starting with Minister of Transport Ahmad Khoram.
In the international arena, the neo-conservatives in alliance with other hard-line forces are calling for a more aggressive foreign policy, under which an international effort to place limits on Iran's nuclear research is being met with calls for withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In addition, the neo-cons, as the recent flap over control of Tehran's new airport demonstrates, want to limit the ability of foreign companies to operate in Iran, and instead seek to award lucrative state contracts to individuals and entities that are aligned with their hard-line agenda.
Members of the Old Guard retain considerable political influence, and there are some early signs that they are unwilling to cede control of the conservative political agenda to Abadgaran. Indeed, the young neo-cons may end up finding that their strongest opponents are their ideological forefathers.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.