"Iran after the Elections" (February-March 2004)
: "The New Conservatives
Interestingly, the conservatives campaigned on a platform to improve economic conditions, while avoiding the promotion of religious ideology. This was epitomized by the name of the broad conservative coalition: Abadgarane Iran-e-Islami (Developers of Islamic Iran). Right-wing political groups employed sophisticated campaign strategies to bolster conservative electoral chances. The main political movement associated with conservative business interests, Jami'at-e Motalefeh-e Eslami (Islamic Coalition Society), led by Habibollah Asgarowladi, did not field any candidates of its own in the elections, opting instead to support "moderate" Abadgaran candidates. Taking another cue from Western electoral strategists, the conservatives fielded some popular celebrity candidates, such as wrestling champion Amir Reza Khadem and Saeed Abutaleb, a well-known documentary filmmaker (who became even better known after he was detained by American forces while filming in Iraq).
The electoral strategy of the conservatives underscored that they are not unresponsive to public opinion. Some reformers predict that the new conservative deputies will have little option but to support policies adopted by the outgoing sixth Majlis to satisfy public demands and promote economic welfare. In any event, the conservatives are unlikely to use their invigorated power to increase repression, which would unnecessarily alienate an already demoralized public.
Some observers have suggested that conservatives may seek to legitimize their rule by seeking a rapprochement with the United States. Since a majority of the population appears to support normalization of Iranian-American relations, the reasoning goes, this would be an "easy" crowd pleaser (in comparison to solving the country's social and economic ills). Moreover, such a breakthrough would validate one of the main rationales offered by conservatives for their recent coup - that a unified decision-making process is more likely to impress the United States.
However, while there is certainly a debate among conservatives about normalization of Iranian-American relations, it is doubtful that Iran will accommodate US demands regarding its sponsorship of anti-Israeli terrorist groups or alleged nuclear weapons program. These demands may well intensify, as the rise of a more authoritarian regime is likely to embolden critics of the Islamic Republic in the United States. Iran, for its part, is unlikely to grant such concessions at the best of times, let alone during a period when the system is undergoing its gravest legitimacy crisis in 25 years. While conservatives are eager to garner public support, they are unlikely to marginalize their core constituency - Islamic zealots who view normalization as anathema.
The misfortunes of the reform movement do not necessarily imperil the future of the Islamic left, particularly the Majmae Ruhaneeyoone Mobarez (Forum of Militant Clergy) that constitutes the historical pillar of this faction. Leading personalities in the FMC are likely to distance themselves from the reform movement and revert to their old discourse - championing economic reform and social egalitarianism within the existing political framework. This will further weaken the reform movement, as the FMC has lent significant organizational, moral and financial support to the "state" reformists over the past seven years.
The broadest implication of the parliamentary elections is that they have dramatically underscored the failure of Iran's mullahs to graft Islamist ideology with the institutions of a modern democratic state. For all the elections the Islamic Republic has held over the past 25 years and all the gesture politics and sloganeering revolving around the theme of "Islamic Democracy," alternations of power in the Iranian government are still determined in secret by a handful of clerics. The reformist Spring in Iranian government was less an outgrowth of societal forces than a political experiment approved for a time by hard-line clerics who have now seen fit to end it. A vestige of this experiment will remain for the final year of Khatami's lame duck presidency, but the Guardians Council is unlikely to permit a credible reformist candidate to stand in the 2005 presidential election."