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Iran at the crossroads

By Hamid Ansari

The future of Iran may well depend on the success or failure of the efforts of a responsive society to seek a place in the sun while retaining its dignity and identity.

IRANIANS ARE political creatures, love to politic, enjoy its uncertainties, and delight in manipulating it. These traits are in evidence as the stage is being set for a presidential election in May 2005 when Mohammad Khatami's second term of office comes to an end. The Iranian Constitution prohibits more than two successive terms. There is now a broad consensus that the reform programme initiated with Mr. Khatami's first election in 1997 has run aground in the teeth of conservative opposition.

The gridlock of the constitutional structure, and the contradictory impulses that go into it, was evident earlier this year at the time of the elections to the Seventh Majlis. The Guardian Council exercised its authority to disqualify about 2,300 candidates. As a result, the conservatives obtained 195 seats in a House of 290. The President, in his last year in office, is facing a Majlis determined to thwart his agenda.

The Vice-President for Majlis Affairs, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, resigned on October 11 and said the country needed "an all out struggle against obscurantism, reactionary ideology and indifference to people's votes." Earlier, the Minister of Transport was impeached; action against some others is threatened. His supporters consider the President feckless on account of his disinclination to force a crisis before the Majlis polls.

Who is the likely successor? Article 115 of the Constitution prescribes the qualifications for candidates: apart from being a Shia, an Iranian, and of Iranian origin, he must have "administrative capacity and resourcefulness, and a good past record." Reformers had hoped that the former Prime Minister, Mir Hussein Mousavi, would draw the requisite support; he, however, has refused to contest. This leaves the field open to the Conservatives. The former President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who now heads the Expediency Council and is the Deputy Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, is unquestionably the most influential player on the scene and is mischievously referred to as "Akbar Shah." "If there is no other suitable candidate," he told a student group on October 8, "I will run in the next election for the sake of Islam and the Revolution." Other names include Ali Akbar Velayati, Ali Larijani and Roohani.

The Revolution is over and is in a post-Thermidorian phase. The resultant situation has inherent contradictions. An overwhelmingly young population wants change but has no stomach for another revolution. It is tired of the clergy and its ways; Grand Ayatollah Montazeri spoke for many when he said the clergy had replaced the Shah.

The economy has registered significant gains, some foreign investment has taken place, the stock market is booming, but the problem of youth unemployment has reached critical dimensions. Freedom of expression and constraints on expression seem to coexist. `Factions' thrive in the absence of political parties, reflecting the fragmentation of the political elite. Having jettisoned failed economic policies, the talk now alternates between the `Chinese' model — advocated by Mr. Rafsanjani — and an `Islamic Japan' suggested by the new Majlis Speaker, Haddad-Adel, who is the first non-cleric to hold the office.

Some of these contradictions are reflected in foreign relations. Complexities abound in the regional environment. In Afghanistan, Iran participated in the effort to oust the Taliban and is supportive of Hamid Karzai and the electoral process initiated earlier this month. The Dari language broadcasts from Meshed, however, have a somewhat different tone.

In Iraq, the satisfaction over the fall of Saddam Hussein was accompanied by the apprehension of encirclement by the United States and concern over the future shape of Iraqi policy.

In regard to Shia groups, caution rather than adventurism is the preferred option. The re-emergence of the centrality of Najaf in the Shia world has some implications for Qum that would need to be pondered over. In global terms, the need for FDI necessitates an investor-friendly foreign policy. The expectation generated by the Council for Foreign Relations Task Force report in July has been overtaken by the electoral rhetoric and a clear picture may not emerge till a new administration settles down.

On the nuclear question, all factions in Teheran want to retain the enrichment option and so does public opinion. The new 2000 km range missile is intended to strengthen the negotiating hand. The former Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Yazdi, however feels that "Iran lost the confidence of the IAEA" by not giving details initially and now has little option but to accept the package being offered by the European Union team.

Recent unofficial initiatives suggest a desire to make civil society views better known and influence opinion. In September, a group of public figures, led by Shireen Ebadi, addressed an Open Letter to the American People urging a change of course in policies "since they harm the struggle against extremist Islamic terrorists." Another letter, signed by 275 personalities, invites Muslims the world over to condemn abduction and murder in the name of Islam.

The future in Iran may well depend on the success or failure of these efforts of a responsive society to seek a place in the sun while retaining its dignity and identity.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)

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