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Iran Elections May Signal End To Mullahs Or Then Again, Maybe Not As Islamic Fundamentalists Still Hold Sway In Government

Sat., March 9, 1996

Iranians voted for a new parliament Friday in a contest that could usher in a new era of Western-style market capitalism, political parties and, maybe, warmer relations with the West, according to political analysts.

Then again, it might do nothing of the kind.

With nearly 3,000 candidates vying for 270 seats in Iran’s first parliamentary election since 1992, about the only thing people agree on is that the outcome is anybody’s guess. In that respect, the contest marks a potential turning point in Iran’s 17-year-old Islamic revolution, pitting hard-line religious conservatives against more pragmatically minded Islamic technocrats.

“It’s a real lottery out there,” a Western ambassador said. “It’s very hard to predict.” Early returns will offer clues to the outcome within the next several days, but some contests will be subject to runoffs, delaying final results for up to one month, analysts said.

The stakes are high for the West, especially the United States, which accuses Iran of sponsoring terrorists and seeking nuclear weapons and last year barred U.S. firms from doing business with Tehran. U.S. officials recently have escalated their campaign to isolate the Islamic republic, accusing it of links to Palestinian extremists who have claimed responsibility for the recent series of suicide bombings in Israel. Iran has denied any involvement.

With sun lighting the snowy peaks of the Elburz mountains that soar above this sprawling capital, residents streamed to polling places at mosques and schools, forming separate lines for men and women and waiting up to half an hour to write their candidates’ names on paper ballots.

But Iranian democracy has its limits. Religious authorities have disqualified more than 40 percent of the original candidates on grounds of insufficient fealty to Islamic rule. Secular opposition figures, especially those who question the role of clergy in government, have been targeted for harassment and intimidation.

Voters, meanwhile, seem fed up with Iran’s theocratic government, which they blame for plunging living standards, rising unemployment and inflation in excess of 50 percent a year. Cynicism runs deep. President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is closely identified with the technocrats, has failed thus far to maneuver his modest economic initiatives past the conservative mullahs who hold sway in parliament.

“I’m not saying I’m irreligious, but I don’t like mullahs,” said a middle-aged housewife who is married to an admiral in the Iranian navy and spoke on condition of anonymity. “All of them are more or less with a religious outlook. There is no sharp distinction between these groups.”

Others, however, take a more optimistic view. According to political analysts here, the unexpected emergence of the technocrats has tossed a wild card into Iranian politics, raising hopes in some circles of a shift toward greater democracy and openness to the West.


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