THE Mideast country the United States has slapped economic
sanctions on for exporting terrorism is bracing for change - albeit
Iranians go to the polls today to elect a new 270-seat Majlis
(parliament) amid an unholy jostling for power among the nation's
A furious debate within political and intellectual circles here
has become more heated than at any time since Iran's 1979 Islamic
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
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
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. …