The Reform of the Conservatives

During the past few years, Iran’s reformists promised a lot but were able to implement little. However, after they have lost the parliamentary elections it is doubtful whether the change in power will have much effect. By Katajun Amirpur

During the past few years, Iran’s reformists promised a lot but were able to implement little. However, after they have lost the parliamentary elections it is doubtful whether the change in power will have much effect. It is even feasible that the conservatives who won the election will increase social freedoms rather than curb them, because the pragmatists among them know they will only stay in power for as long as they win over the population. By Katajun Amirpur

photo: AP
Picture of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei, during events marking the 25th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran

​​Iranian conservatives have recaptured parliament, and one of their first accomplishments after the elections was to ban two of the reformist newspapers that were still in circulation.

Many see this as a sign that the social freedoms could now be cut back further. However, the conservatives have always had every opportunity to get rid of any disagreeable press. They control the judiciary, which has banned numerous newspapers in recent years.

The irony of the situation in Iran is that possibly not much will change at all in spite of the change of government. While reform orientated parliamentarians promised initiatives – such as laws that guarantee freedom of opinion, gender equality and a greater protection from the arbitrariness of the judiciary – they were unable to implement them anyway. Now such bills will not even be introduced in the first place, which ultimately makes hardly any difference.

Many even expect conservatives to increase social freedoms instead of cutting them back. They are not so concerned with implementing their ideology as preoccupied with retaining power. In order to do so, they have to win over the people. Therefore, they are prepared to make concessions. Mohammad Javad Larijani, one of the leading conservative theorists, candidly admitted this strategy recently.

Discrepancies between idealism and reality

Amir Mohebian, editor of the newspaper Resalaat, a radical publication, expressed a similar view shortly after the election, in a remarkable interview with the Berlin newspaper, Tageszeitung: "Discrepancies exist between idealism and reality. We have to reach a compromise. For example, if one part of the population says I don’t want to wear a headscarf and another group comes along and says the headscarf is not enough, but rather the chador is compulsory, then the hijab – the headscarf – should be accepted. I am talking about the minimal version of a hijab, even if it just covers the hair in a small area. In the end, we will acknowledge the realities in order to protect our Islamic system."

Mohebian also gave an astonishing response to the question whether this is enforceable against the radical powers: "We have to keep the radicals in our own ranks in check. The future discourse of the conservatives will be pragmatic and try to hold on to their own principles."

Accordingly, it looks as though the conservatives will simply take over the reform agenda in the social and economic areas. At least it shows that the pragmatists among them are able to force radicals to compromise, something they would never have been able to do with the reformists. On the other hand, the conservatives seem to be fully aware, that they have to improve the economic situation; otherwise the situation in the country might escalate.

Closer ties with the "Great Satan"

This could also result in closer ties with the USA. Such a prospect has already been indicated by Hassan Rouhani who is being touted as the next presidential candidate of the conservatives. There have been informal contacts between the two countries for a long time – the government in Tehran even supports Washington in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Thus, Iran used its restraining influence on the Afghan Northern Alliance and accepted the Iraqi Interim Council instead of thwarting American policy in Iraq.

In the event of closer ties with the "Great Satan", the population of Iran hopes for more than just an improvement in the economic situation. The people expect the West to exert pressure on the Iranian rulers with respect to human rights issues. The trade agreement that Iran wants to conclude with the European Union could provide a starting platform.

Katajun Amirpur

© Magazine for Development and Cooperation 04/2004

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