Iran Fresh Blood in the Theocracy
In the nuclear poker game with the West, a third faction is exerting its influence in the power struggle between the right and the reformers: the pragmatic conservatives. In advance of the parliamentary elections, there is growing disappointment in the reformers surrounding President Mohammed Khatami.
Two souls reside in the heart of Mohammed Jawad Laridjani. As a scientist, the mathematician is considered one of the leading intellects of the Islamic Republic.
At the research institute for theoretical physics and mathematics founded by Laridjani, in the upper-class north of Teheran, directly adjacent to the sumptuous Niawaran Palace of the deposed Shah, the young Einsteins of the Islamic Republic brood over nanostructures, supersymmetry and quantum gravitation. "We are a sort of Iranian Max-Planck Institute," says its director, referring to the high standards of his research facility.
But striving to achieve greater scientific knowledge is not the only objective of the 53-year-old Laridjani. He is one of the most important spokesman and leaders of the powerful conservatives, who reject a Western party model. Anyone who intends to make something of himself in Iran's center of power finds it difficult to circumvent this clever doctor with the revolutionary resume.
Acceptance by the religious establishment is an indispensable condition of professional success in the mullah state, and something for which Laridjani has his family to thank. As the son of a grand ayatollah, there has never been any doubt as to his religious conviction. Laridjani demonstrated his revolutionary fervor during the protests against the Shah in Teheran in the late 1970s. He still talks about his "youthful sins" on the barricades, behavior that led to his arrest by the secret service on two occasions.
Unlike many of his compatriots, who never ventured far from Iran's religious schools and lecture halls, Laridjani never shied away from contact with the "Great Satan," the United States. In fact, he even wrote some of his research papers in sunny California. The doctor has nothing but praise for the open atmosphere and standards of the University of California at Berkeley.
It is precisely this cocktail of religious fervor, revolutionary experience and practical worldliness that has transformed this man with the carefully trimmed sideburns into the leader of a faction that sees itself as a third force in the power struggle between defiant revolutionary fanatics and dynamic reformers. He is a true "conservative pragmatist." This political strategist believes that his new movement "is pumping new blood into the right wing."
As a sort of "spin doctor" for the mullahs, Laridjani eagerly pursues one goal above all others: the overwhelming defeat of the reformers surrounding President Mohammed Khatami in the spring of 2004. Laridjani, confident of his coming victory, enthusiastically predicts a "completely new era" for the theocracy.
Although the mathematician's predictions of a victorious outcome for his party may be somewhat rash, the importance of the election for the country's future is undisputed. The liberal newspaper Nasim-e Sabah (Morning Breeze) has even referred to the parliamentary elections as "the most important event since the 1979 Islamic Revolution."
In fact, Iran's roughly 40 million eligible voters will face a momentous decision: Will they give the liberal forces that currently prevail in parliament a second chance? Or will they help the conservatives surrounding religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni stage a comeback? Finally, will they even turn out to vote in an election already overshadowed by allegations of manipulation?
For Laridjani, however, there is more at stake than an election to the seventh Iranian parliament, or Majlis: This doctor dressed in expensive clothing is attempting to achieve a fundamental reorientation of politics, and is doing so successfully.
Laridjani's coolly calculating clique already appears to have made one of its most spectacular political chess plays: the announced signing of the supplementary protocol to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The agreement, the outcome of months of negotiations with the West, would guarantee that the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency would be allowed to conduct inspections everywhere and at all times to determine whether the mullahs, in spite of their many denials to the contrary, are indeed developing nuclear weapons.
Unlike the religious hard-liners, who would be all too pleased to see Iran become a nuclear power, if only to use its Shahab rockets to thumb its nose at hated rival and nuclear power Israel, the Iranian neocons have dispensed with ideological ballast. According to their leader Laridjani, Teheran's actions must instead "be shaped exclusively by the question of what is good for Iran." In Laridjani's view, reaching a compromise with Europe and, more importantly, with the world's only remaining superpower, the United States, is a far better solution than confrontation.
Laridjani and his supporters no longer wish to demonize America, but instead view it as a potential partner. The doctor proposes joint efforts to fight terrorism as an initial attempt at cooperation. For someone like Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization, the pragmatists no longer wish to be a part of Washington's "Axis of Evil." And with regard to the nuclear conflict, Laridjani has even expressed the unthinkable: "If the United States does build the reactors for us after all, then they can inspect them themselves."
The pragmatist is also calling for decisive action in terms of economic policy. He believes in a consistent campaign to privatize the country's state-owned businesses, which still control a large share of its crumbling industry, and in downsizing Iran's rampantly growing bureaucratic government infrastructure and making it more efficient.
In a bid to win voters, Laridjani rails against the "Mafia-like structures" within the religious foundations, which control large portions of the economy. "We will create greater competency," says Laridjani in his wide-ranging election slogan. This is why the pragmatists are more interested in qualifications than ideology when selecting their candidates, a strategy designed to win over the younger generation, which sees itself cheated out of opportunities by stubborn mullahs. After all, every third Iranian is unemployed, and each year the job market is flooded with well over 100,000 new university graduates.
Even the promising spark of economic opportunity offered by tourism has threatened to be extinguished ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11th threw their shadow over Teheran. The great Royal Square of Isfahan, once a must-see for every tourist visiting Iran and, with its arcades, one of the most outstanding examples of Safawidic architecture, is virtually unvisited today. "In the past I sold merchandise for more than 150 dollars a day," complains rug merchant Parvis, lamenting the absence of Westerners. Today he can be happy to make that much money in two weeks.
This is why an economic recovery is more important to many people than the dreams of the liberals. They think like Ali, who spends his days lifting weights and smoking a water pipe in Teheran's Lale district. "I don't care about politics," he says, "I just want employment opportunities." If he could make something of himself professionally, Ali would no longer have to spend his evenings hanging around with his four friends - all between 20 and 30 -, and could finally afford to start looking for a wife.
The pragmatists are unlikely to push for domestic policy reforms. Like the ultra-radicals, the moderate conservatives reject any form of Westernization. The concept of "liberalism" is taboo in their party, and Laridjani has no interest in talking about "reform," a word he believes is too aggressive and demanding. His goal is to achieve an "evolution" of Iranian society, one in which "all changes will be implemented with the necessary caution."
The pragmatists are also performing a balancing act between fundamentalism and future in terms of human rights. Of course, they have no interest in a rewriting of the Sharia, or Islamic law. For this reason, they will not abolish the punishment of stoning, for example. However, Laridjani believes that suspending such sentences is the right step, partly to alleviate pressure from the West.
The prophet waves away the impatience among large parts of the population like the smoke of his cigars. He advises "not to take so seriously" the student protests for freedom of expression and democracy. In his opinion, these "children" want everything to happen far too quickly and have no understanding of the "national interests of Iran." He believes that this is already evident in their demands, demands shaped by foreign influences. "Modernity," says Laridjani, "may not be imported."
In spite of their reservations about reform, the pragmatists speculate that they will win at least 50 additional seats in the Iranian parliament, and have not ruled out the possibility of gaining a majority. The strategist is confident that Iranians will not allow themselves to be taken in by the empty promises of the reformers a second time around. Nonetheless, the reformers have held a strong majority in the Majlis since the 2000 parliamentary elections, with about two-thirds of its 290 seats.
According to Laridjani, the ultra-conservatives, who are firmly in control of the judicial system and state security forces, have done their utmost to prevent any liberalization. Liberal publications have been shut down, critics of the regime have been arrested, and leading intellectuals who presented too vigorous a challenge to the mullah state have been murdered. The virtually omnipotent religious leader Khameni and his arch-conservative Guardian Council, a sort of religious constitutional court, have blocked any form of political opposition.
One can only surmise the level of resignation among the former pioneers of reform when a professional optimist such as Shirin Ebadi, a Teheran attorney and winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, is clearly averse to discussing politics. However, Khatami's former front-woman claims to have retained her "hope" that reforms will come soon.
The president's brother is showing the heavy strain of going into elections under the banner of progress. Reza Khatami, a member of parliament, drops wearily into his chair, and the chairman of the Iran Islamic Participation Front sounds unconvincing when he talks about the future of his movement. The bastion of the free thinkers consists of 130 members of parliament, for now.
Reza Khatami makes no effort to dispute the allegation that the reformers have disappointed their supporters: "We know that young people, in particular, are not happy with us," and he knows that many are so frustrated that they simply refuse to vote. However, low voter turnout would spell a bitter defeat for his party, as was the case in February's communal elections.
Khatami almost defiantly points out that his Participation Front has 5,000 members and 250 offices throughout the country, and that they will mobilize votes during the final months. However, the party chief declines to say exactly what it is he will use to attract voters. After all, the ultra-conservatives have successfully crushed all of their initiatives, such as their efforts to liberalize the country's press law.
However, the reformist wing refuses to admit defeat, even though the conservatives have not shied away from manipulating the election. Member of parliament Khatami complains that many of his party's most promising candidates were simply not approved by the Guardian Council: "They are trying to cut off our heads."
It already begins to sound like an obituary for his movement when the chairman of the Participation Front talks about the "historical achievements of the reformers. "The engine of progress," the party chief assures, can no longer be stopped, and he firmly believes that his brother, the president, deserves at least part of the credit. He also believes in his people's desire for freedom: "People will force the conservatives to permit reforms," and will do so peacefully, he hopes.
In any event, Reza Khatami has called upon his fellow reformers to remain calm: "Reformers, like a clever cat, must balance themselves on a narrow ledge between anarchy and dictatorship." And would his opponent Laridjani be the wolf in sheep's clothing? Khatami feels that the comparison goes a bit too far. But then the reformer smiles and says that while the pragmatic doctor in his office up in the foothills of the Albors Mountains may not be a wolf, he is certainly a clever fox.
The leader of the right has long since begun looking beyond the parliamentary elections. Laridjani also intends to win the presidential elections in 2005, when President Khatami, written off by the voters and apparently deeply depressed himself, will be constitutionally barred from running for a third term.
The aspiring officeholders are still maintaining a low profile, at least officially. Ever since his success in helping bring about the nuclear compromise, Teheran's chief negotiator, Hassan Rohani, is said to have begun forming his own political ambitions. According to Mohammed Roghaniha, editor-in-chief of the liberal newspaper Iran Daily, "perhaps someone from Rafsanjani's camp will throw his hat in the ring." Former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, as head of the negotiating committee, still exerts considerable influence.
And chief pragmatist Laridjani? After already having represented Teheran in the Majlis twice as more of a revolutionary fanatic, he too appears to be driven to a higher office. The doctor is said to be quietly preparing his campaign for the presidency, and with Faustian zeal.
Translated by Christopher Sultan