TCS Daily


End of the Road for Reforms in Iran?

By A.H. Jaffor Ullah - March 1, 2004 12:00 AM

The recent election on 20 February 2004 was a watershed in the modern history of Iran. By limiting the number of electoral contestants, the 12-man Guardian Council barred around 2,500 reformers from standing for election. It should be noted here that the election of the all-powerful Guardian Council itself is anything but democratic. Hard-line mullahs control the composition of the Council and so it was easy for them to decide who would stand for the national election.

The result, of course, was predictable. Very few reform-minded candidates were elected; in fact, liberal candidates were barred from contesting. Hardliners won all five seats in the former capital Isfahan, once a bastion of the reformist movement in Iran.

If the results were predictable, the condemnation from the outside world was no less predictable. The Wall Street Journal's editorial of 24 February 2004, barely four days after the election, stated, "This time around, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, decided the appearance of democracy was not worth the risk of another showdown. The list of thousands of disqualified candidates included more than 80 sitting members of Parliament. Internet providers were ordered to restrict access to potentially subversive sites."


The world is watching the goings-on in Tehran with some trepidation. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said on 23 February that Iran's "flawed" elections would have an impact on the already stalled trade talks between Tehran and the European Union. President Bush denounced Iran's parliamentary elections and said Tehran's leaders stifled freedom of expression. Mr. Bush further said the disqualification of the candidates "deprived many Iranians of the opportunity to freely choose their representatives." A statement by foreign ministers of the European Union, Iran's largest trading partner, called the election a "setback for democracy."

The Iranian authorities on their part, are hitting back using polemics. The conservative candidate who topped the February polls said the United States had to recognize the reality of the Islamic Republic and take the first step toward restoring relations. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told the state news agency IRNA that foreign critics of the parliamentary elections were "not informed of the realities and complexities of developments under way in Iran."

The Iranian mullahs along with their Ayatollahs are up in arms, saying that the West has no right to criticize the way Iranians hold their election. The repressive government of Iran has banned a hundred pro-reform publications, thus effectively stopping the spread of reformist ideas. By May 2004 the moderate MPs who weren't permitted to contest elections this February will have to hand over their seats to incoming conservative MPs. This will create a massive problem for progress in Iran because, to quote Jon Hemming of Reuters, the "conservatives have been at pains to present an image of moderation and scotch fears of a crackdown on new social freedoms, the main tangible achievement of Khatami's government."

Just before the elections, the government shut down the last two big reformist newspapers in Iran. These dailies had published a letter written by a hundred reform-minded MPs to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accusing him of presiding over a system that trampled on people's rights. Culture Minister Ahmad Masjed Jamei sent a letter to Mr. Khatami three days after the election, protesting the closure of the newspapers.

The February elections are a serious blow for moderate Iranians who are tired of Iran's insular mullahs leading civil society back into the dark ages of early Islam. On 23 February 23, 2004, the defeated force proclaimed in Parliament that the election was rigged. Angry voters attacked state offices in the southern city of Kohkilouye and damaged vehicles, the official IRNA news agency said. Eight people were killed and 30 injured in two other southern towns in similar protests over the election weekend.


In 1997 when the Iranians were electing their president, they thought it would be a good idea to elect someone perceived by the West to be a moderate. Mr. Khatami's resounding victory in that election gave the rest of the world hope concerning Iran. Mr. Khatami, though, is a moderate who has disappointed many by failing to stand up to his opponents, the hard-line mullahs. He could not say "no" to the decisions taken by the Guardian Council, he watched silently as the reformist party candidates were barred from the election. Then the mullahs came up with the idea of forming the Guardian Council to protect their Islamic Revolution of 1979. In 2000, Iranians elected a relatively liberal majority from a carefully screened list of candidates for their nation's Majlis or Parliament. However, despite some small amount of progress, the Ayatollahs of Iran have always stalled reform measures. Reforms, although showing early promise in 2000 and 2001, have actually been going nowhere in Iran.

In the tussle between the mullahs and Khatami's followers, the former has come up trumps. When President Khatami's term ends in 2005, the country will choose a new President. All indications are that Iran may go in for a hardliner mullah as their next leader. A bleak outlook for reforms in Tehran, indeed.

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA.


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