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Last Updated: Monday, 23 February, 2004, 19:55 GMT
Analysis: What now for Iran?
By Jim Muir
BBC correspondent in Tehran

Iranian politics has taken a turn to the right, with the defeat of the reformists by resurgent conservatives in Friday's general election.

Posters of Iran's religious leaders
Return of the revolution: Iran's religious right rules the roost again

What now for the reform movement, and for Iran itself?

Four years ago, millions of Iranians swept the reformists into parliament on a tidal wave of hope.

With the presidency already in the hands of the reformist Mohammad Khatami, the expectation was that the reform movement would now be able to make good on the promises given and the hopes aroused.

But it was not to be. Reformist parliamentary bills were assiduously blocked by the Council of Guardians, the highly-conservative, 12-man appointed watchdog body which supervises both legislation and elections.

The hard-line judiciary kept the reformists on the political defensive through a series of arrests and newspaper closures, embroiling them in one crisis after another.

If you interpret reform as a movement within the government, I think yes, this is the end. But if you regard it as a social phenomenon, then it is still very much alive.
Reza Yousefian, reformist MP

The result was that the reformists had little to show for their four years in parliament and seven in the presidency, and the public largely turned away from them.

That much was evident in last year's local elections, which saw the right-wing gain control of the local councils by default as their hard-core loyalists turned out while erstwhile reformist sympathisers stayed at home.

'Lame duck'

Whether that same pattern would have been repeated in Friday's general election, had it been normal, we will never know.

The playing-field was tilted heavily in the conservatives' favour by the Council of Guardians when they disqualified some 2,500 candidates, mostly reformists, including all the top vote-winners from the 2000 election.

Some sitting conservative MPs were reported to be quietly angry at the Council's actions, because they thought they could have won fair and square as they did in the local elections.

Mohammad Reza Khatami
We have to make up for the time and opportunities that we've wasted in the past few years
Mohammad Reza Khatami

As it is, the barred reformist candidates can pose as martyrs who might have won had they been allowed to stand - although some had admitted before the controversy over the disqualifications that they thought their prospects were poor.

With his supporters in parliament reduced to a feeble rump and only one year left in office, most analysts now regard President Khatami as a lame duck who may be able to exercise moral authority and keep the voice of reform alive in office, but will be unable to achieve anything more tangible.

"If you interpret reform as a movement within the government, I think yes, this is the end," said Reza Yousefian, one of the reformist MPs who was denied the chance to run again.

"But if you regard it as a social phenomenon, then it is still very much alive."

Wasted opportunities

The struggle and debate over the ideas that the reformists proclaimed - greater democratisation, transparency, the accountability of elected officials, civil rights and freedoms - is now expected to move into two arenas.

Polling booth in Iran
The turn-out for Friday's vote was estimated at about 50 per cent

The reformists themselves will now go back to the drawing-board, back to society and its grassroots, seeking to build up their parties and to develop non-governmental organisations and other organs of civil society.

And within the system, the focus is now likely to shift from a debate between reformists and conservatives, to one within the conservative camp.

"Going outside the Parliament and even outside the government is an opportunity for us to reorganise our party," said Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's brother, who also leads the biggest reform party and is deputy Speaker of the outgoing parliament.

He too was banned from standing again.

"This is one of the main problems for the reform movement, a lack of organisation, the lack of a strong party, so it is very important for us.

"I think people's view of reform has not changed, but they have some criticism of the reformists and their leaders. We have to make up for the time and opportunities that we've wasted in the past few years," he told the BBC.

Ending isolation?

Ayatollah Khamenei is mobbed by supporters in his car
Ayatollah Khamenei still commands devotion amongst many Iranians

While the reformists are working to strengthen and revitalise their base in society, the conservatives will find themselves in the same situation as the reformists did four years ago - of having raised expectations of progress and prosperity, especially in the economic arena.

Their slogans and even the names they campaigned under - the "Coalition of Developers of Islamic Iran" swept the board in Tehran - all stressed the need to put factional struggles aside and get the nation back to work.

To do that, one of the prime necessities is to create jobs for the thousands of young people now pouring onto the market.

That means massive investment, which the country cannot fund on its own.

It needs to attract foreign investment. For this and many other reasons, Iran and its politics cannot remain isolated from the outside world.

The right-wing's remit

"This is not the end of reform, because reform is a necessity," said Sadegh Ziba Kalam, professor of politics at Tehran University.

"We need reform because of the economy, because of social problems, because of our political problems," he added.

Tehran street
Conservatism and western culture co-exist in Tehran's streets

"I think now the battleground will shift into the conservative camp, between the more moderate, more pragmatic, more educated, more professional conservatives on one hand, and the more ideologically-orientated, more fundamentalist, more hard-line conservatives on the other."

In that respect, Iranian politics seems set to return to the pattern of Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidencies (1989-1997), when his pragmatic conservative policies were often undermined by hard-line ideologues.

What the conservative victory may mean in terms of social and political freedoms is the subject of varied predictions.

Some analysts believe the right-wingers will now feel more secure and will be eager to show that they too have a human face.

But others fear that the hard-line judiciary - which closed two major reformist newspapers on the eve of polling - may now feel even more free to prosecute its anti-liberal campaign.


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