Bitter US Foe Recalibrates Its Revolution Iran Vote Looks to 21st Century

Article excerpt

THE Mideast country the United States has slapped economic sanctions on for exporting terrorism is bracing for change - albeit incremental.

Iranians go to the polls today to elect a new 270-seat Majlis (parliament) amid an unholy jostling for power among the nation's Islamist leaders.

A furious debate within political and intellectual circles here has become more heated than at any time since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Newspapers have published outspoken criticisms of government policy, while weekly magazines have covered subjects ranging from the separation of mosque and state to the alleged corruption of President Hashemi Rafsanjani's family.

"The competition is unprecedented," says Saeid Leylaz, a reporter at the daily Hamshahri newspaper and a prominent television journalist. "These are the best-fought elections in Iran's history."

Though the parliament has limited powers, these elections are the most important in Iran since 1988. The composition of the next parliament will establish Iran's legislative climate for the first years of the 21st century. And it will serve as a springboard for the 1997 presidential elections, when the Western, reform-oriented President Rafsanjani, having served two successive terms, must step down.

The main contest has pitted a group of old-style Islamist hard-liners known as the Association of Militant Clergy, led by incumbent parliamentary Speaker Ayatollah Ali Akbar Nateg-Nouri, against a Rafsanjani-backed group of economic reformists and technocrats, known as the G-6.

Economics over ideology

Over the past two years, non-ideological administrators such as the mayor of Tehran, Gholam Hussein Karbaschi, have assumed a wider role in the running of state and municipal affairs at the expense of Islamic theologians who have up to now directed much of Iran's domestic economic and social policy. Backed by President Rafsanjani, they have begun to place sound economics above religious ideology in strategic decisions.

But the introduction of economic reforms, such as a reduction in the gasoline subsidy and an experimental abandonment of the fixed exchange rate in 1994, has also sent inflation soaring to more than 50 percent a year.

As Iranians go to the polls, they have to decide whether they prefer the reformists' free-market policies, which entail higher prices as well as a more liberal social code, or the strict authoritarianism of the ruling clique of conservatives who cling to the line of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini led the overthrow of the Western-backed shah in 1979 and ruled the country with an iron fist until his death in 1989.

"It'll be a two-way fight over the economy," says one Western diplomat in Tehran. "There are no other issues."

Iranian government officials and foreign analysts agree that the results are genuinely unpredictable. "Rafsanjani is a liberal man, and he's opening up the country. But his reforms have cost a lot," says an official from Iran's Ministry of Islamic Guidance.

A vote over nuances

"Mr. Karbaschi has changed the city, but at what cost? House prices have tripled with all his new taxes," the official adds. "The poor don't like him. At the same time, they don't like the militant clergy. It's difficult to see how people will vote."

Despite the bitterness of the contest, the authorities ensured that no candidate provides a serious challenge to the status quo. Last week, the Council of Guardians, an Islamic oversight committee, disqualified about 30 percent of the 5,359 prospective candidates without explanation. Moreover, the Interior Ministry barred the opposition Freedom Movement of Iran from campaigning and subsequently raided the group's offices during a news conference, seizing journalists' film and cassettes.

"People will not be voting for or against the Islamic republic," says one European ambassador in Tehran. …