Thursday, January 22, 2004

Elections part one

An update on Iran, with a little repetition of background.

The Guardian Council, composed of six clerics and six Islamic jurists, all of them holding to a very conservative view of Islamic law, had disqualified more than a third of the 8,200 people who applied to be candidates in Iran's February 20 elections.

The disqualifications overwhelmingly affected reformers, including 83 members of Parliament aligned with President Mohammad Khatami. In response, they staged a sit-in at the Parliament building, refusing to leave until they were reinstated.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a conciliatory gesture that offered the Guardian Council a face-saving way out, said that anyone who had previously been found qualified - which obviously would include any standing MPs - should be considered still qualified in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

Despite that, the Council has been dragging its feet, leading to:
Teheran, Iran (CNN, January 21) - Iran's Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi says a number of ministers have tendered their resignations in an ongoing dispute over the disqualification of hundreds of pro-reform candidates. ...

Abtahi declined to say Wednesday how many were threatening to resign over the disqualification of prospective candidates who had criticized the hard-line unelected Guardian Council.

When asked whether Khatami would join others in walking out, Abtahi told reporters in Tehran: "It is supposed that all of us will go together."
The determination of the Khatami government to act on that threat seems clear. The question then becomes how far the Guardian Council is prepared to go.

In some ways, the Council and Khamenei are in a politically difficult position. Their desire, as I read it, is to maintain an Iran that is as conservative - I expect they would say "pure" - with regard to Islamic law as possible while still burnishing its foreign image with at least the appearance of reform.

Rejecting any reconsideration of disqualified candidates will surely generate a mass resignation among government ministers. While there are undoubtedly those in the Council who would welcome such an event, it would surely produce at least short-term administrative chaos and generate a tide of bad publicity. It would also certainly result in another wave of mass demonstrations by reformists. The last such were successfully contained, but it's very doubtful any of the ayatollahs want to go through that again, especially with a sort of government-in-internal-exile as a focusing symbol.

Yet appearing to accede to the reformers' demands by a large-scale reinstatement runs the risk of producing a different sort of internal crisis, this one among enraged hard-line supporters, some of who would love to have a chance to bust some reformist heads. It's doubtful the clerics want that kind of situation, either - especially since, with half an eye on international reaction, they couldn't be confident their supporters would come out on top.

I don't really have any predictions as to what will happen. I suspect that the Governing Council, which has until the end of the month to act, will find a way to reinstate the protesting MPs and a goodly number of the other disqualified reformers while standing firm on some, particularly - if there are any on the list - vocal reformers not presently in government, as a means of asserting their authority to make such a decision. The reformers then will have to decide if 75% or 80% of what they wanted is enough, which I think they would - provided those who have come to symbolize the protest are among the reinstated, so they can accept the decision without looking like they backed down.

The thing is, all that seems very rational, an exercise in political reality by both sides. But even though they figure in, political considerations are not the only thing on the table here. Passion, conviction, aspirations for greater freedom versus dreams of past Islamic glories, hopes, fanaticism, all are part of the mix. What happens may well depend on in what portions.

Footnote: Despite the attempts by some to connect them, this has nothing whatsoever to do with Shrub's "bold leadership in Iraq." These reform movements long predate Bush and in fact it's more likely that the invasion of Iraq hindered reform in Iran by making it easier to tar any reformers with the label "supporters of Western imperialism."

Update: The Age (Melbourne, Australia) reports in its January 23 issue that Khatami has said he does not plan to resign. According to the report, this was expected; his reformist allies in Parliament believed he would avoid confrontation with the theocratic leadership in pursuite of a negotiated settlement.

Expected it perhaps was, but it still raises new questions. Since this certainly appears to undermine Vice-President Abtahi's statement that "It is supposed that all of us will go together," not to mention Khatami's own earlier statement that if one goes, "we all go," does this mean the reformers are backing down? Or that those below Khatami have been since the start prepared to go further than he is? Or was Abtahi just trying to - pardon the cliche - push the envelope?

It might also simply mean that I'm an even worse prognosticator than I thought I was.

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