Dashed Hopes in Iran

By Shaul Bakhash

Published February 27, 2004, issue of February 27, 2004.
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Only a few years ago Iran appeared to be on the cusp of fundamental democratic transformation. The 1997 landslide victory of President Mohammad Khatami had ushered in an era of expanding social freedoms and increasingly open political debate. Then, in 2000, a coalition of reformist parties won a working majority in parliamentary elections, promising to build on President Khatami’s accomplishments by expanding civil liberties, curbing the excesses of the judiciary and security agencies and promoting greater transparency of state institutions.

Those days of hopeful anticipation could not seem more distant. Last week’s controversial parliamentary elections — in which conservative forces won by excluding almost all reformist candidates from the ballot — dash reformist hopes of using the political process to liberalize Iran, at least for the foreseeable future.

The conservatives’ victory is the culmination of a four-year campaign of repression mounted in response to the 2000 parliamentary elections. Conservatives, led by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used their control over the judiciary, police, and security and paramilitary forces to block reform at every turn. Dozens of newspapers and magazines were shut down. Editors and investigative journalists were put on trial and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Khatami’s own interior minister, responsible for licensing new political parties and professional associations, was forced out of office, then tried and imprisoned. Several prominent intellectuals were killed — as was eventually revealed — by agents of the intelligence ministry.

At the same time, the judiciary appropriated new powers to arrest and prosecute individuals for their views and writings, and the constitution was interpreted in egregious ways to expand the powers of the supreme leader and the Council of Guardians, a body dominated by senior clerics that can veto laws passed by parliament and disqualify candidates for elected office. It was the Council of Guardians that made possible last week’s conservative electoral sweep by disqualifying hundreds of candidates, including 87 sitting reformist legislators and more than 120 other prominent reformist candidates. In response more than 100 members of parliament staged a four-week sit-in, 125 handed in their resignations and the largest reformist party eventually voted to boycott the elections — all to no avail.

The conservatives now have a clear majority in the new parliament and will set the legislature’s political agenda for the next four years. Moreover, they are expected to complete their domination of the government by winning back the presidency in 2005. Khatami cannot run for a third term, and the reformists lack an equally charismatic figure to lead them. The Council of Guardians is unlikely to allow reformists it has already barred from parliament to stand for the presidency.

Conservatives probably will fail to roll back the freedoms that women and the young have won in matters of dress, intermixing of the sexes, social mores and choosing the films they wish to watch or music they wish to play. But major changes are to be expected in the political sphere.

A likely bloc of between 50 and 60 reformist deputies in the new parliament may be vociferous in their opposition to the conservatives, but they will lack their most prominent and able leaders. Moreover, the voice they provided in the current parliament to protest restrictions on the press, arrests of journalists and intellectuals, and the excesses of the judiciary, security agencies and Council of Guardians will be far weaker. The main reformist parties outside parliament will probably face further restrictions on their activities, as will the press. Even as the votes were being counted, two of the remaining reformist newspapers were shut down.

While the latest elections may have dealt a knockout blow to the reformists, the response of the public has been muted. Disillusioned by the maneuverings of conservatives, weak reformist leadership and missed opportunities, many Iranians had already given up on the hope that the political process would bring about a transformation of the regime.

When hope for reform, freedom and accountable government was high in the period from 1997 to 2001, voter participation in parliamentary and presidential elections averaged 67%. By contrast, the turnout for this election — around 50% nationwide — was low by the standard of recent Iranian elections. In Tehran and some other major cities last week, no more than 30% of eligible voters cast ballots.

Growing voter indifference to the political process provides the conservatives with some breathing space. But indifference could easily turn to anger if the conservatives fail to create jobs and the vibrant economy they promise or if they intrude again on the private lives of Iranians. It is too early to tell if the pragmatic centrists in the conservative camp will prevail over the hard-liners who, given room, would severely restrict the political space and tamper further with the constitution.

At present, the Iranian public is quiescent. Having experienced the terrible upheavals and disappointments of one revolution, Iranians prefer that change be orderly. But stability can prove fleeting when the citizenry feels alienated from its government and is cut off from any means of redress.

The conservatives would do well to heed the lessons of recent Iranian history. A quarter-century ago, Iranians lacked a political outlet to articulate discontent. The press was muzzled, parliament a rubber stamp and real political parties non-existent. The result was the revolution that brought down the Shah and created the Islamic Republic. It was the third time in the 20th century that Iranians took to the streets and seriously challenged governments that were arrogant in their exercise of power and unresponsive to public opinion. If the conservatives ignore the Iranian people’s hunger for change, they may eventually be in for a rude awakening as well.

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