TEHRAN - Iran's dominant conservatives have been rolling back the tentative liberalisation of reformist President Mohammad Khatami since winning control of parliament in disputed polls earlier this year, but it remains unclear how far to the right they will take the Islamic republic.
Since the February elections, won by hardliners after most moderates were barred from standing, the Islamic republic's right-wing has implemented a tough crackdown on social vices, pressed on with silencing dissident voices and stalled key foreign investors lured by Khatami's brand of "Islamic glasnost".
"They are trying to wipe away everything done by the previous parliament, whether political, social, cultural or economic," Elaheh Koulaie, a former reformist MP, told AFP on Monday.
Koulaie, a women's rights activist, was part of the reformist majority that held the Iranian Majlis or parliament from 2000 to 2004. The assembly managed to change the political tone of the country, even if most legislation was blocked by the Guardians Council -- a hardline-run vetting body.
The Guardians Council eventually barred most reformists from contesting the February polls, handing an easy win to right-wingers. Khatami and a handful of his cabinet members have been left isolated as the few remaining moderates still in office.
"The new parliament rejected the bill on equality for inheritance that we voted through the first time around. They also removed an article from the fourth five-year plan on gender equality," Koulaie complained.
The shift to the right has also been visible on the streets.
In recent months, police have been spearheading a crackdown on "badly-veiled women" -- in other words females showing off too much of their shape or hair, and one of the most tangible results of Khatami's seven-year-old presidency.
"We ask for the respect of Islamic values cherished by people, and not for the following of Western models," said one of the new conservative MPs, Javad Arianmanesh.
"We distinguish between a cultural invasion and cultural exchange. In a cultural exchange we select what is appropriate, but we utterly reject cultural invasion since it targets our indigenous culture and wants to alienate our people -- especially the youth," said the MP and deputy head of the Majlis cultural commission.
Concerning satellite television -- which is banned -- and the Internet, he said such "mediums of communication are not fully pure and are run by big media giants controlled by Zionist capital."
"Therefore we want to have satellite and internet controlled and supervised."
Several pro-reform web sites and newspapers have been blocked or closed down -- a sign that the flourishing political debate brought about under the Khatami era remains under assault.
Hardliners have also set their sights on stemming economic liberalisation, even though reviving the stagnant and investment-starved economy was a central plank of their election manifesto.
"Contrary to the conservative's slogans in favour of a liberal economy, they also rejected an article in the fourth five year plan in favour of privatisations," Koulaie said.
Hardline deputies have also spoken out against a mobile telephone operation contract awarded to Turkish telecoms giant Turkcell, as well as a contract with French car maker Renault to jointly build a new national car.
Foreign investor confidence was also dealt a blow when the Revolutionary Guards -- an ideological army and powerful right-wing bastion -- shut down Tehran's new airport on the grounds that a contract handed to an Autrian-Turkish consortium threatened national security.
But observers are uncertain how far towards renewed isolation the right wing want to go.
"The conservative camp groups idealists and realists, and we hope that the realists will take the leading role," said Koulaie, pointing to differences within the right-wing camp.
According to journalist and analyst Said Leylaz, "the radicals in the conservative camp are trying to go back on the liberalism of the Khatami years, but they are not fully supported by the technocrats and traditional right."
Khatami's second and final term in office ends in June 2005, and observers see the upcoming presidential election as a gauge on how far to the right the regime intends to go. Already the names of several conservative candidates are circulating, with prominent right-wingers showing some difficulty in hiding their divisions.
"The conservative candidate in the next presidential election will show which current in the camp is ahead," said Leylaz.