Iran General NewsIran’s religious conservatives are expected to solidify power at...

Iran’s religious conservatives are expected to solidify power at polls


New York Times: With eight days before Iran’s parliamentary elections, there is little doubt that religious conservatives will tighten their grip on power, pushing aside some of the veteran politicians who helped found the Islamic Republic 29 years ago. The New York Times

Published: March 6, 2008

TEHRAN — With eight days before Iran’s parliamentary elections, there is little doubt that religious conservatives will tighten their grip on power, pushing aside some of the veteran politicians who helped found the Islamic Republic 29 years ago.

Political analysts have been predicting that conservative politicians, many of them close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will consolidate their power in the elections, on March 14, a process that began with parliamentary elections four years ago and continued with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005.

“The significance of this election lies in the fact that barring political rivals from entering elections has become an established part of political life,” said Abbas Abdi, a political analyst in Tehran.

A hard-line group of clerics called the Guardian Council reviews the candidate lists. Earlier reviews barred many reform-minded politicians from running, accusing them of not being loyal to the revolution. Final decisions were being sent to the candidates on Wednesday, but were not expected to be known for a few days because they are not announced publicly.

Many prominent politicians stayed out of the race to avoid humiliation, they said privately. Ali Eshraghi, a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, withdrew in protest after his candidacy was rejected.

Politicians close to Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president, said that, with the rejections, they expected to field candidates for only about 110 seats in the 290-seat assembly, and that those who were left would keep a low profile.

“They can probably become a useless minority in Parliament,” said Alireza Rajai, a political analyst.

The conservatives are divided between Mr. Ahmadinejad’s supporters and his critics. But without the need for many of them to campaign vigorously, and with a confusing lineup that makes it hard for voters to identify supporters and critics, their positions are unlikely to become clear. Ahmad Tavakoli, an outspoken critic, appears on what was thought to be his supporters’ list, for example, as does Ali Larijani, who resigned as Iran’s chief negotiator on its nuclear program because of differences with the president.

Most members of the new ruling class have military backgrounds but little history in the struggles against the prerevolutionary government that had shaped politicians’ eligibility for many years.

The new leaders call themselves Principlists, a reference to their belief in the principles of Islam, which they say have been neglected. Their stance has won them strong support from the Guardian Council, which also declared many of the reformists ineligible in the previous parliamentary elections.

“We believe that we must run the country based on a religious framework,” said Mohammad Reza Katouzian, one of the candidates close to Mr. Ahmadinejad. “We must return to Islamic values, and they should become the basis for development of the country.”

The supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all matters of state, also openly endorsed the idea of elections in which only the conservatives are permitted to run, saying in a speech last week that moderate forces “were not loyal to the values of the revolution.”

“The enemy has openly said that it should increase the pressure on the country so that the moderate forces get elected,” he warned in that speech, newspapers here reported.

Ayatollah Khamenei has continued to back the conservatives despite Mr. Ahmadinejad’s disastrous economic performance. High inflation and unemployment, amid large profits from Iran’s oil, have caused disillusionment among the president’s supporters. Some political analysts say that even though these conservative politicians will hold power, practical considerations may cause them to moderate their stances. These analysts note that some supporters have already called on Mr. Ahmadinejad to moderate his economic and foreign policies.

“There was a radical force in the country that always acted like a powerful brake for progress,” said an analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “Now they have paid a high price for their radicalism and realized that if they want to survive as a political force they have to act more wisely.”

But others point to the weak performance of the current Parliament despite harsh criticism by its members of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s policies. Parliament voted for his budget last month although critics said it increased the president’s leverage by giving him a freer hand over oil revenue. “Parliament is partly to be blamed for the inflation,” said Mr. Abdi, one of the political analysts. “Despite criticisms, they have kept endorsing Mr. Ahmadinejad’s policies, and the same policies have led to the current situation.”

Many of the conservatives who now criticize Mr. Ahmadinejad supported him in the 2005 presidential election.

“We believe in many of the government’s goals,” said Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a member of the Coalition of Principlists, the party competing with United Front of Principlists, which supports Mr. Ahmadinejad. Mr. Khoshchehreh was a major and vocal supporter of Mr. Ahmadinejad in the 2005 campaign.

“But we have serious criticism for his policies, especially his economic policies,” he added.

Reformists have internal problems, with a fragile coalition after a former speaker of Parliament, Mehdi Karoubi, distanced himself from prominent reformists, called them radical reformists and presented his own list of candidates. His party expects to compete for 55 percent of the seats, with many independent candidates on his list.

Reformists ended up with only about 40 seats in the current Parliament after the Guardian Council’s action in the last elections and have had no influence in decision making.

The official campaign will begin a week before the vote, but Parliament has barred candidates from printing posters in an effort to keep campaign costs low, making it difficult for candidates to present their platforms to voters.

With many people who might back reformists saying they are disillusioned and not planning to vote, and with the government able to use its resources to mobilize its supporters, even the reformists who remain in the race are not expected to win many seats.

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