1. Revolutionary Guards to Squeeze Reformists out of Parliament

Factions of the Islamic regime were less bothered this week by the glittering ceremony in Oslo awarding Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi a Nobel Peace prize than the coming general election next February. More than anything the hard-line rulers want a popular mandate for its handling of existential issues. It will be left to the next Majlis, parliament, to ratify – or not – the government’s signature on the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which forces Iran to accept snap international inspections of its nuclear sites.

The dilemma facing the clerics of Tehran is a hard one: While they fully control domestic security forces and the judiciary and hold veto power over all legislation, reformist factions hold a majority of 160 in the 290-member Majlis. The laws they enact are subjected to the scrutiny of a Guardian Council of 12 conservative clerics who have the power to determine if the legislation is in line with the Islamic constitution and canons. All progressive laws are jealously voided before being transferred for arbitration to another powerful conservative religious body, the Expediency Council, headed by influential former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and controlled by radicals.

Reformist legislator Hossein Loghmanian voiced his camp’s frustration when he told parliament Tuesday, December 9: “We enact laws only to see them cast aside by the Guardian Council and then finally scrapped by the Expediency Council. The people stand on the sidelines, watching all this, and losing heart.”

Nonetheless the fundamentalist heads of the regime are determined to remove the last obstacle to their aims – the reformist grip on the Majlis. In their usual secret conclaves, they have decided on ways of disqualifying undesirable pro-reform candidates from running for election to parliament and posting in their stead at least 40-60 candidates drawn from the middle ranks of the Revolutionary Guards and loyal Basij volunteer militia. The next House is intended to be reduced to a rubber stamp for the government with a smattering of pro-reform lawmakers.

Intimidation and violence will be employed to head off embarrassing campaign speeches calling for liberal reform.

Legislator Ahmad Shir-Zad from the city of Isfahan had a foretaste of what lie ahead when he recently berated the country’s repressive regime from the parliamentary podium for some 10 minutes. Majlis Speaker Hojat-Ol Eslam Mahdi Karroubi rebuked him with ominous words:

“Does the honorable gentleman speak for Israel Radio’s Persian Service?”

Shir-Zad began to backtrack, saying he was criticizing the “system”, not the government. His half-hearted apology was satirized by the conservative Kayhan daily, which asked sarcastically if Shir-Zad was not really Menashe Amir, director of Israel Radio’s Persian broadcasts, in disguise.

A day later, thugs from a group called the Iranian Hizballah wrecked Shir-Zad’s office in Isfahan, after smearing excrement on its walls. Shir-Zad, who had a son arrested during student protests four months ago, also received death threats.

Reformist factions falling apart

For two weeks, his speech was at the center of a war of words between the radical and reformist camps. Ali Emami-Rad, a minority legislator, described reformists as “the Zionists who have infiltrated the Majlis”. During a particularly stormy parliamentary session, epitaphs such as “a spokesman for Israel Radio’s Persian Service” and “Zionist Israeli agents” filled the air.

As the debate raged on, other senior legislators were beaten up badly enough to require hospital treatment. Leading reformist Mohsen Mir-Damadi, chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs and defense committee – and one of the Khomeinist students who seized the US embassy in Teheran in 1979 — was attacked brutally by Hizballah thugs during a visit to Khatami’s hometown of Yazd, where he was to make a speech.

Another legislator, Issa-Gholi Ahmadi-Nia, was attacked in the oil city of Masjed Soleiman, where he was to lecture on the contribution of the Bakhtiari tribe toward Iran’s democratization. Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mussavi-Lari, essentially a puppet controlled by the radicals, warned that if the situation continued, he would “spill the beans on the thugs”. But another parliamentarian, Nasse Ghavami, did not wait for any bold move by the minister. He declared in parliament that since the reformist victory in the previous election four years ago, gangs have been trying to terrorize the freedom fighters. A Western diplomat in Teheran said the situation reminded him of the way Hitler used Nazi thugs to gain power in Germany in the 1930s.

Under constant attack, the reformist camp – made up of 18 factions ranging from progressive clerics to secular Iranians with Western values — is losing the cohesion that held it together for the past four years.

Jebheh-Ye Mosharekat E Eslami, a progressive secular party led by Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the brother of the president, approved a series of decisions this week on the importance of promoting democracy and restricting the interference of religious authorities in everyday life. Militant clerics belonging to another reformist faction, the Majma-E Rouhanioun-E Mobarez, refused to join forces with the Mosharekat. The declaration was subsequently disavowed by the faction’s leaders, but it is clear that it has moved closer to the pro-government conservative-religious camp.

The radical Jamiat-E Mo’Talefeh-Ye Eslami faction, the Islamic coalition, also held its conference this week. It decided to do its utmost to block a reformist majority in the incoming legislature.

If the radicals persist in their plan to take over parliament by hook or by crook, they will be confronted with an electorate that votes with its feet. Less than 30 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the municipal elections two years ago. But the Majlis vote is no local contest – it is a bellwether of support for the government. Since most of the country’s voters were born after Iran’s Islamic revolution or children at the time, turnout will be a key indicator of the degree of support the Teheran regime enjoys. Iranian leaders need a strong mandate to meet powerful challenges in the international arena. They are also well aware of the Shiite Muslim precept that a government that has no popular support has no reason to exist.

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