Amir Taheri: End of the reformist itch may ironically be healthy for Iran
Whichever way one looks at Iran's latest general election the result is a decisive defeat for the so-called "reformist" camp. The product of an illusion, the so-called "reformist" movement had deceived itself into believing it could deceive all the people all the time.
It all started with Mohammed Khatami's election as president in 1997. Iranians turned out en masse to vote for Khatami not because they liked, or even knew, him but because they wanted to prevent the election of the establishment's candidate whom they knew all too well. Nevertheless, Khatami's election manifesto at the time sounded both reasonable and promising. It contained 10 pledges.
The first was to restore law and order to a country where extra-state organs exercised often arbitrary power since 1979. It is clear that Khatami has failed to honour that pledge. His supporters, including his brother Mohammed Reza, who was not allowed to stand as a candidate in last week's election, now speak of a "constitutional coup d'état" by their rivals.
Khatami's second pledge was to "revive the Iranian economy". Here, too, his record is one of failure. Despite annual economic growth rates of more than four per cent in 2002 and 2003, the average annual rate for the past seven years stands at 1.5 per cent, which means an actual recession.
Nor has Khatami made any progress on his third pledge: to remove all discriminatory measures against women. If anything Iranian women are likely to receive a big slap in the face when the full results of the latest election are known. It is quite possible that no more than one or two women will enter the new majlis (parliament).
Khatami's fourth pledge, to normalise relations with the outside world, also remains unfilled. The European Unionis beginning to lose patience at what it sees as a pattern of duplicity by the mullahs.
Washington, having made some conciliatory gestures towards Tehran, now seems hesitant, preferring to wait and see who actually rules Iran. Even the much heralded restoration of diplomatic ties with Egypt has not materialised.
Khatami had made other pledges: to ease pressure on Iran's youth, some 65 per cent of the population, and to provide jobs for at least some of the 10 million or so men and women shut out of the labour market. Nor has he managed to stem the flow of Iranian "brains" that, according to Unesco, are leaving the country at a rate of 150,000 a year.
The so-called "reform" leaders say they are surprised at the fact that the people did not support their 11th hour show of militancy symbolised by a sit-in at the parliament building last month. During the sit-in the "reformists" made lengthy and passionate speeches.
The people yawned. The "reformists" then decided to resign but did so only after the parliamentary session had ended. In other words they were quitting the show after the curtain had fallen.
Worse still, the "reformists" never made it clear what it was exactly that they wanted. They moaned about "dictatorial and despotic tendencies" in the regime but never proposed any measure to correct them.
During the seven-year "reformist" experience we have had over 2000 executions almost 50 per cent of the world total in Iran. At least 50 dissidents, writers, journalists, politicians, and religious minority figures have been assassinated. More than 200 publications, including some 100 newspapers, have been shut down. The number of prisoners has risen to its highest levels since 1985.
The last hope of the "reformists" was a massive boycott of the polls by the voters. Had that happened they would have been able to claim the result as a round-about victory for themselves. But it didn't happen.
At the time of writing this column, the official figures indicated that the turnout had been at least as high as it was four years ago. The only difference is that this time around some 20 per cent of those who went to polling stations cast blank ballots.
What does this mean? It means that many people went to the polls to deny the "reformists" the low turnout they had dreamed of. At the same time, they cast blank ballots to make it clear that they do not approve of the system.
All in all, some 25 per cent of the total electorate voted for the candidates. Of those less than a quarter chose the candidates regarded as close to the "reformists".
A further quarter voted for candidates who have genuine local power bases and could not be classified either as "reformist" or "conservative".
Thus the support base for the so-called "conservative" faction amounts to around 12 to 15 per cent of the total electorate. In other words, what matters in the present context of Iranian politics is who controls the levers of power. On that score, there is no ambiguity: power in Iran today belongs to the camp identified by western Iranologists as "conservative".
That camp, however, does not consider itself as "conservative" at all. On the contrary, it prides itself as the standard-bearer of the Khomeinist revolution whose aim remains the conquest of the universe for "the one and only true faith". Anyone who would think Iran's true rulers are conservatives would be making a mistake.
Whether anyone likes it or not - and this writer does not - the Khomeinist movement remains a revolutionary force. As already noted, its support base in Iran has shrunk to between 12-15 per cent of the electorate.
But, unlike the confused, not to say hypocritical, "reformists", the radical Khomeinist camp has a clear ideology, a well-established agenda, and well-known methods of dealing with its opponents. It is as it appears. And that, in the context of Iran's current politics, is a relief for all concerned.
Genuine, or if you like "hard", Khomeinism, still enjoys some support in Iran. Ersatz, or "soft" Khomeinism as represented by the so-called "reformists", however, has no firm constituency.
As long as Iranians are not able to offer a clear alternative to genuine Khomeinism, the nation will not emerge from its historic impasse. By dispersing the fog of confusion, last week's election may make the formation of such an alternative that much easier.
Time may prove that the end of the seven year "reformist" itch in Iran would be good for the Iranian people and all those who want Iran to resolve its revolutionary crisis and return to normal.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam, between 1972-79 he was the Executive Editor of Kayhan, Iran's main daily newspaper. Taheri is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com http://www.gulf-news.com/Articles/Opinion.asp?ArticleID=111993