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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Iran's hardliners fight back
Iran's political leaders gathered at the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini
Some of Iran's leadership is trying to resist demands for change
By Iranian political analyst Vahe Petrossian

In early 2000, before President Khatami's opponents began their latest offensive against the reform movement, Iran's right-wing and conservative factions seemed to be on the run.

By allowing the public fiction that they are observing the rule of law to be maintained, President Khatami has allowed the conservatives to paralyse his presidency

Voters had just given reformists a landslide victory in parliamentary elections and right-wing government officials and intelligence agents were having to defend themselves against charges of corruption, mismanagement and even murder.

A former intelligence minister faced possible court trial, while even former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was being threatened with prosecution.

Yet so-called hardliners appear to be in control.

Right-wing factions have been able to control the levers of power since April last year despite representing at best 20% of the country's population. But this unbalanced situation may not last long.

Against the trend

The right-wing comeback since last year is partly due to the control conservatives have over key aspects of the judiciary and the security forces. Dozens of journalists and intellectuals are in prison and there is an atmosphere of intimidation.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Conservative leader Khamenei may be resisting inevitable change
The ability of the right-wing to go against the political and social trends in the country has been reinforced by the widespread impression that it has the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The near absolute powers of the Supreme Leader's office were whittled down following the death of the leader of the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, more than a decade ago.

However, someone like President Mohammad Khatami cannot challenge the Supreme Leader without a dramatic confrontation.

Backed into a corner

Mr Khatami has made it clear so far that despite his ambitions for reform, he is not the kind of politician who would rock the boat dangerously.

Reforms, including a free press, threaten the financial and other privileges enjoyed by some of those who gained status in the days when there was little or no accountability

The president can also be said to have talked himself into a semantic corner.

Right-wing leaders are often accused of abusing the country's laws for their own purposes.

But by allowing the public fiction that they are observing the rule of law to be maintained, Mr Khatami has allowed the conservatives to paralyse his presidency.

President Khatami can be said to have the support or sympathy of something like 80% of the population. Among the young and women, his support is even higher.

The older generation

There is traditionally a strain of social and religious conservatism running among the older generation of Iranians.

Many of these people, who make up perhaps one quarter of the population, are uneasy with the fast pace of reforms that marked the first half of the Khatami administration.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami
Khatami has allowed himself to be undermined by not criticising the conservatives
These conservative Iranians have lent moral support to the hardliners trying to scuttle Mr Khatami's promised reforms.

However, the conservative community has split during the past year, with many thinking Islamists reportedly deeply worried over the long-term consequences for Islam of ignoring social and political realities.

An increasing number of analysts in Iran are looking at the right-wing resurgence of the past year not as an ideological phenomenon, but as a struggle for survival by some members of the old guard and those whose vested interests are in jeopardy.

Damage to Islam

Reforms, including a free press, threaten the financial and other privileges enjoyed by some of those who gained status in the days when there was little or no accountability.

This may account for the crude and provocative tactics of the hardliners.

If those opposed to Mr Khatami's reforms were preoccupied with Islam, they would be careful about their strategy and tactics, insiders in Tehran argue.

As things stand, the image of traditional Islam has suffered serious damage in Iran - and no doubt abroad - over the past year.

The hardliners, despite their apparent power and control, are seen as increasingly isolated.

The presidential election may expose their ultimate weakness further.

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08 Jun 01 | Media reports
Iranian press hails expected high turnout
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