Iran's Election Results Seen Too Difficult to Call

Article excerpt

Forecasters predict a partly sunny, partly cloudy election day for Iran's pro-reform forces Friday in the country's first parliamentary vote since their champion, President Mohammed Khatami, swept to power in 1997.

But the unwieldy coalition backing Mr. Khatami, a convoluted voting system, and the still-considerable power of the country's more hard-line forces make Iran's post-election course - and its relations with the United States - much harder to predict.

"The reformers can do well, but they need a large turnout and they have to winnow down their candidate lists so they don't split their own vote," said George Mason University's Shaul Bakhash, an expert on Iranian politics.

"One way or another, the reform camp keeps creeping forward in Iranian politics," added Farideh Farhi, a researcher at the Washington-based U.S. Institute for Peace. "The underlying political landscape of Iran has changed."

Friday will be the first of two rounds of voting for 290 seats in the Iranian parliament, known as the Majlis. Nearly 6,000 candidates are battling for the seats, with both the "reformist" and "conservative" camps embracing a broad array of often competing interests and factions.

Since his surprise 1997 win, Mr. Khatami has battled a Majlis dominated by conservatives eager to preserve the hard-line Islamic thrust of the revolutionary government that overthrew the shah in the 1979 revolution.

Despite winning 70 percent of the vote three years ago, Mr. Khatami has made only halting progress with his program of economic and social reforms. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, yesterday weighed in with a speech on state radio calling on voters to support "Islam and the Islamic system" in Friday's vote.

"You can send a faithful and devout person to parliament," said the ayatollah, the direct successor to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who engineered the 1979 revolution. Government officials in the audience punctuated the address with cries of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel."

While important as a barometer of Iranian public opinion, the Majlis elections will provide at best a partial answer on where Iran's 21-year-old revolution is heading, and on how its extremely fluid political liberalization will pan out.

"These elections will not be the be-all and end-all for the process of change in Iran," cautioned Michael Rubin, a lecturer in Iranian history at Yale University and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"I wouldn't expect change to be overwhelmingly quick even if the reformers take power in the Majlis," Mr. Rubin said. "There are too many structural and institutional power centers in Iran for change to happen as quickly as many would like."

David Menashri, chairman of Tel Aviv University's department of African and Middle East history, said outside observers still know very little of the dynamics of Iranian politics, particularly outside of the Western-oriented, educated circles of Tehran and a few other major cities.

Many of the candidates grouped under the reform banner are also virtually unknown outside of Iran. …