Iran elections a referendum on revolution

Parliamentary vote becomes popularity poll for reformist leader


TEHRAN, Iran -- Today's parliamentary elections have emerged as a referendum to define just whose ideals were at the heart of the Iranian revolution 21 years ago.

The vote has become, as well, a popularity poll for President Mohammad Khatami, the reformist theologian who was swept into office in 1997 but has yet to realize much of his liberal social agenda or achieve his stated goal of improved relations with the United States.

For Iranians like Abdi Manoumshah, who took part in the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 but now is a Khatami supporter, the election for the parliament is a way to release the religious monopoly's brakes on everything from a free-market economy to a free press.

"If the president has the Majlis behind him, nothing can stop him," he said. "And if he can achieve just 50 percent of what he has talked about, he will be a great success."

But the old guard that has resisted all reconciliation with the West and Western culture remains a powerful force. It lost the presidential election 2 1/2 years ago, but has not lost power yet.

Khatami's promises to open Iranian society have alarmed those right-wing forces, which include the security forces blamed for killing several reformers last year, the state-sponsored vigilante groups that attacked student demonstrators last summer and the conservative clerics who have closed down a succession of independent newspapers.

"The election of President Khatami opened a vista, and from that time on, people started to criticize the system more objectively," said Hermezans Vavand, a professor of international relations at Tehran University. "The conservative movement then hardened its positions and reacted with violence toward anyone who was critical.

"But a great number of them are time-servers and opportunistic," he added. "They might end up getting on the bandwagon."

Whichever ideological faction wins control of parliament, it will face the same mundane problems that have dogged Iran for years. Its economy has not grown fast enough to keep up with its population growth, with unemployment and poverty on the rise. Nearly 38 percent of its population is age 15 or younger, a group that also will strain the job market. Much of Iran's production is in the hands of secretive religious foundations that pay minimal taxes.

Khatami has proposed widespread privatization of industries that were nationalized after the revolution and has had some success in pushing his economic plans through parliament.

"In general, the Majlis has been fairly cooperative with him," said Ardavazd Baghoomian, who has served in parliament for 16 years in one of two guaranteed seats allotted to the country's 200,000 ethnic Armenians. "But if Khatami had a majority, he might have been able to push through more fundamental changes."

None of the political factions vying for seats in parliament have talked about an economic plan, either for or against Khatami's. But the reformers have said they want to open the way for a frank, even impertinent public debate on all matters of public policy.

They have talked of reforming the court system, encouraging the formation of political parties, and openly permitting satellite dishes and other elements of foreign culture that are officially prohibited but widely embraced.

But the powers of parliament are limited, although in many ways untested. It approves and can also impeach ministers. It approves the budget and economic policy. But no law is enacted unless it is also affirmed by the 12-member Council of Guardians, experts in Islamic law.

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