Talking Point: Iran at a Crossroads

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As tension mounts in Iran before the inauguration of a pro-reform parliament, TIME Daily's Tony Karon discussed the situation with TIME Middle East bureau chief Scott MacLeod and Tehran reporter Azadeh Moaveni.

In the quasi-democratic theocracy that is Iran, taking power isn't simply a matter of winning elections. The Islamic republic's reform movement grouped around President Mohammed Khatami has learned that the hard way, as they're battered by conservative opponents whose control of the judiciary and the all-powerful Council of Guardians gives them the power to deny the reformists the fruits of their convincing February election win. Iranians went to the polls Friday in 66 constituencies for runoff votes after they'd failed to produce clear victors in the first round, amid signs of a furious conservative backlash. Since February, the conservative judiciary has closed down the pro-reform press, imprisoning a number of journalists and other prominent liberals. The Council of Guardians has also dragged its feet on ratifying the reformist win in 30 Tehran constituencies, while the conservative judiciary has also sought to embarrass Khatami's efforts to repair relations with the West by charging 13 Jews with spying for Israel in a trial that appears to owe more to Stalin and the Spanish Inquisition than to anything approximating due process.

"When Khatami was first elected in a surprise upset three years ago, the conservatives were shocked at the extent of disillusionment with the Islamic revolution and confused over what to do about the forces unleashed by his election," says TIME Middle East bureau chief Scott MacLeod. "The recent election of a majority of reformers to parliament has shaken the revolution to its roots, and ever since we've seen conservatives desperately trying to block the path of reform. But with the new parliament due to take office at the end of this month and give reformers the legislative power to liberalize the society, closing newspapers won't be enough to stop the progress of reform."

So will the conservatives try and stop the inauguration of the new parliament?

Scott MacLeod: Right now, there's no sign that the conservatives plan to go that far, and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who remains the supreme authority for the conservatives, has insisted that they respect the law and the constitution in their challenge to the reformers. Thus far they've restricted themselves to frustrating the reformers using quasi-legal and political steps. Once they used their legislative majority to block Khatami's reform efforts, but now they've lost that. Still, the Supreme Leader's injunction against using illegal means makes it unlikely that they'd resort to something like a coup to stop the reformers from taking control of parliament. And the Supreme Leader has to be aware that the backlash against the reforms is making people more eager for change and turning them against the revolution.

Azadeh Moaveni: The conservatives are unlikely to block the inauguration of parliament, but it may well be that the new parliament will have to go ahead, initially, without the representatives from Tehran, because that vote has not yet been ratified and ballots are still being recounted. That would deprive the reformists of the presence of some of their best leaders in the parliament, at least until the Tehran vote is finally ratified.

Is the trial of the 13 Jews on spying charges viewed as part of the domestic power struggle between reformers and conservatives?

AM: Political analysts see it that way, because the way the investigation was conducted by the conservative-controlled legal system raised a lot of questions. It certainly didn't conform to the way these things have been handled in the past in Iran, and close observers of the political process view it as a politicized issue between the two factions. For ordinary Iranians, though, even those following the domestic power struggle, the trial is less of an issue.

What effect does closing down newspapers have on the reform movement?

SM: The pro-reform newspapers have really been the most important single organizing vehicle of the reform movement. It's given voice to the challenge to the conservative clergy's grip on power, and in recent years has become increasingly bold in its willingness to discuss topics previously off-limits.

AM: The reformers see the ban as a short-term move, and they talk in terms of when rather than if the papers will be reopened. In fact, even now the reformers could simply open new papers and continue publishing — they have the resources and have done that in the past. But they've decided not to do that for now, as part of a political strategy.

What is the strategy of the reformers now?

AM: Extreme caution while waiting for parliament to convene in two weeks' time. This may the most dangerous period the reform movement has experienced yet. The leadership has become acutely aware of the need to avoid giving the conservatives the slightest excuse for any sort of crackdown, because they're aware that the shutdown of a newspaper, for example, could provoke a student demonstration, and that in turn could spark a fierce crackdown that might even create a security pretext for the conservatives to delay the seating of the new parliament.

Over the past couple of weeks the reformist leadership have realized that they'd become overconfident following the February election, which was provoking the conservatives. Losing the parliament was enough of a disappointment for the conservatives, but having the liberal newspapers carrying promises from reformers to sweep away many of the traditions the conservatives hold dear — such as women legislators' vowing not to wear the chador scarf in parliament — was rubbing salt in the wound.

So Khatami sees the need to accommodate the conservatives in some way, because of the tremendous power they still wield?

AM: Absolutely. It's not in Khatami's interests to try and drive the conservatives out of politics altogether. He wants to remain at the center of an orderly political system, and to do that he needs to have the conservatives inside the political process. And the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, has been trying to set himself apart from the factional infighting, trying to carve out a role of mediator when things get out of hand.

So despite beating them in the parliamentary election, Khatami isn't lining up the knockout punch for the conservatives?

AM: No. You have to remember that the reformers weren't expecting to do nearly as well as they did in February. It took them by surprise, and they now believe they became over-hasty, and weren't prepared for the backlash. Now they're reverting to Khatami's original strategy of moving reform forward by smaller steps that are more certain.