Neo-Cons Take Tehran

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By NAHID SIAMDOUST/TEHRAN Two days after Iran's parliamentary elections, the country's first vice-president Ali Abtahi posted a surprise warning on his personal web site. The electorate, he said, required the victorious "collection of factions that were considered to be opposed to reforms (that) had taken part in the elections under the civil title of Abadgaran (or Developers)," whose "candidates spoke of freedom to own satellite dishes, promised freedom to young people, and even hinted at relations with the United States," to stick to their promises. Failure to do so, Abtahi warned, would "be a serious crime against the good people" who voted for them.

With their joyous yellow election campaign posters flashing daisy flowers with the slogan "Progress is not only our dream, it's our plan!" this new coalition including some old-time conservatives loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini won a landslide victory. Although some 58 of the 290 seats in the majlis (parliament) remain to be filled, the Abadgaran have already secured an unprecedented 25 of Tehran's 30 constituencies. Its upbeat campaign and a ticket listing little-known professionals, the Developers? promises to pursue social and economic improvements within the Islamic-Iranian framework appeared to have convinced a majority of those who turned out to vote.

The right wing may have been helped by the fact that the turnout was a record low — only 50.75 percent of eligible Iranians voted. More than half of majlis seats, estimated at about 160, were won by conservatives, with only about 40 going to reformists. This is in stark contrast to parliamentary elections four years ago, when the electorate gave an estimated 200 seats to reformists. Many of those candidates were precluded from standing, of course, as the conservative-controlled Guardian Council simply disqualified the reformist candidates in about half of the constituencies, leaving them no chance of prevailing.

The result may now shift the focus of Iran?s political dynamic from a contest between reformists and conservatives to a political struggle between pragmatists (represented by the Abadgaran) and hard-liners within the ranks of the conservatives. "This group of pragmatists works less with ideology and more with reality. They are professional experts and want to deliver on people's needs," says Dr. Amir Mohebbian, political editor of the conservative daily "Resalat." Others aren't as optimistic. "The Abadgaran are just the old wolves in new sheep's clothes," says a student leader at Tehran's Amir Kabir University. "They are the new hardline tactic to regain control over the political structures of the country."

So far, there hasn't been much sign of a struggle. The hard-line mouthpiece "Kayhan," edited by one of Ayatollah Khamenei's representatives, has been welcomed the success of Abadgaran, highlighting the Islamic aspect of its campaign. But powerful hard-liners such as Habibollah Asgarowladi and Asadollah Badamchian, who were asked by their own circles not to run lest their negative image taint the entire conservative slate, are expected to wield great influence over the new legislature.

Sensing popular support in the electorate for hard-won reforms, the face-lifted right wing distanced itself from familiar right-spectrum parties and themes, instead choosing an image of progress and "service to the people," signaled by their name, 'Developers.' Showcasing only two known figures — former minority leader Gholamali Haddad-Adel, and the twice-defeated presidential contender Ahmad Tavakoli — the Abadgaran responded to Iranians' disillusionment with politics by offering candidates with professional expertise rather than ideology.

"We are tired of politics in the majlis," says 42-year old electrician Hossein Tehrani, who lives in a conservative Tehran neighborhood. "The representatives are there to serve the people, not to drown in their political skirmishes. I am voting for the Abadgaran so that our majlis changes, but the essence of our republic remains."

Under the slogan "Us and You!" Abadgaran?s slate of doctors, engineers and economists — a number of them educated in Britain and the U.S. — presents a people's-party-image focused on addressing the everyday problems of Iranians. Still, there is no doubting the Abadgaran's revolutionary credentials, nor its conservative leaning.

The coalition pledges its allegiance to Islam and to the concept of the clerical Supreme Leader as the guide within Islamic governance. Its program promises job-creation and lower inflation, greater equality and economic justice for the working class, security for domestic and foreign investors, and greater privatization. These promises resonated with an electorate suffering unemployment levels higher than 25 percent, while many breadwinners are forced to hold down several jobs to make ends meet.

The Abadgaran's foreign policy maxim is, "Honor, Wisdom, Prudence," which may remain far from an interest-driven realpolitik. "Relations with the U.S. are not as important as our prayers, nor as sinful as alcohol," says coalition leader Tavakoli. "For more than half a century, the American government has been oppressing us, so, unless they change their attitude, there's no basis for rapprochement."

At the party headquarters, young basijis — the militant grassroots enforcers of clerical rule — campaigned on the streets and went from door-to-door to get out the vote. They even solicited votes through chain text messages on mobile telephones. Their work paid off, making the small Abadgaran candidate list ubiquitous in many of Tehran's election centers.

"What all the candidates on our list have in common is their economic expertise and their revolutionary experience," says Haddad-Adel's 30-year old son Farid, who has been active in the campaign. "Some of these people have been tortured in the Shah's prisons, or have been wounded in the holy Iran-Iraq war," he says, adding, "we are loyal to this regime and the leader," pointing to Ayatollah Khamenei's portrait on his mobile phone screen for emphasis.

Trying to distance themselves from a negative byword, the Abadgaran refuse to accept the "conservative" label. Although they differ fundamentally from reformists in that they do not question the vast constitutional power of unelected bodies, they still prefer to be called reformist. "We don't believe in the reforms of the so-called reformists. We will implement our own understanding of reforms in an Islamic Iran," says Haddad-Adel. "Real reforms," he says, "means a better standard of living within Islamic morals."

"We have to tend to economic problems, something the vast majority of Iran's population is suffering from," adds the economist, Tavakoli. "Khatami and the sixth majlis didn't understand people's votes," he continues. "They thought the vote was political but what people needed most was an improved economic situation and prospects for the future."

Appearing surprisingly jolly after having been washed away from Iranian parliamentary politics, Mohammad Reza Khatami, the head of Iran's biggest reformist party — the Participation Front (IIPF) — and brother of the reformist president, believes whoever is in power now, will have to continue reforms. "They might have temporarily paralyzed our movement by barring us from running," he says in the IIPF headquarters that were shut down by the hardline judiciary for a day before elections, "but the process of reform will continue in Iran. It can no longer be stopped."

The closure of two main reformist newspapers the day before Elections fueled fears among some reform activists of a new era of repression. Others believe the conservatives will want to win people's trust by not cracking down too hard. Most simply don't know what to expect.

"The main battle in the next majlis will be between the pragmatists and the hardliners among the right," said Tehran University political science professor, Sadegh Zibakalam, in a heated debate on American-sponsored Radio Farda. "If the hardliners squash the pragmatists with their isolationist and extremist policies, then I see dark clouds in the sky. But if the pragmatists are able to triumph over the hardliners and push through with their proclaimed plans of economic improvement, then I see light at the end of the tunnel."