TOPICS > Politics

Elections in Iran

February 21, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: The ballots are still being counted from Friday’s elections in Iran, but preliminary results show reform candidates on their way to winning a majority in parliament. As of today, with about two-thirds of the votes tallied, the Associated Press reports Reform candidates have won 137 of parliament’s 290 seats; conservatives, who have controlled parliament until now, have won just 44. Independents have ten seats so far, while winners have yet to be determined for the other 99. Turnout was heavy. More than 80 percent of Iran’s 38 million eligible voters cast ballots. Many were young. Iran permits voting at age 16, and more than half the country’s population is under 25.

The election had been billed as a showdown between reformists who want social and political change, and conservative hard- liners who support strict Islamic rule. Today, the conservatives’ best-known candidate, former President Rafsanjani, was reported to be struggling to win a seat. The reformist candidates had allied themselves with the course set by President Mohammed Khatami, who was elected in 1997. Khatami’s supporters think their parliamentary gains will speed the pace of reform.

MOHAMMED ALI ABTAHI: (Translated): I think the results are clear and definite that the reformists are going to win, so I don’t think anything else is going to happen. This project was done with the election of President Khatami, and when the parliament and government have the same goal and direction, reform can take place faster and sooner.

MARGARET WARNER: The president’s efforts to expand individual freedoms and reduce the clergy’s power in government have put him at odds with Iran’s Islamic rulers, especially the Guardian Council led by Ayatollah Ali Khameni. Khameni succeeded the Ayatollah Khomeini, who ruled Iran after the 1979 Revolution that ousted the Shah. During the campaign, conservatives called for stricter adherence to the roots of that Islamic revolution.

DR. HASSAN CHAFOURYFARD: We have a special way of life, a special class of thinking, a very important ideology which is a religious ideology, which we have been sacrificing for the last 20 years and which we have done so much to make sure that it is implemented in the country.

MARGARET WARNER: The Guardian Council also vetoed hundreds of parliamentary candidates for being too liberal or insufficiently Islamist. Despite losing parliament, the conservatives retain power. The Guardian Council can veto legislative bills, and the Ayatollah Khameni controls the judiciary, army, and state-run radio and television. Final election results won’t be known for several days. The new parliament convenes later this spring.

MARGARET WARNER: We get three views of the election results from Mohammad Mahallati, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations before leaving the Diplomatic Service in 1989. He’s now a fellow at Harvard and at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Shaul Bakhash was a journalist in Iran, and is now a history professor at George Mason University. He’s written widely about Iran; and Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and director of the Middle East Forum, a nonprofit consulting and research organization. Welcome gentlemen. Professor Bakhash, how do you explain the apparent size of this victory? If these margins hold up, it will be 3-1 for the reformers?

SHAUL BAKHASH, George Mason University: Indeed. It shows the Iranian people voted extensively for greater political freedom and social freedom. They want the rule of law, and they want an accountable government. Secondly, I think this was a rejection of individuals who are associated with the conservative rule of the past 20 years and who did not make the transition to reform. And as pointed out in the preview, former President Rafsanjani, who was considered the second most powerful man in Iran, may not get into parliament at all. And thirdly, I think the voters signaled their displeasure with those organizations like the Council of Guardians, like the judiciary and like the intelligence agencies who have been involved in suppressing freedom, arresting dissidents and closing down newspapers.

MARGARET WARNER: So Ambassador Mahallati, are they rejecting Islamic rule or only the way it’s been practiced recently?

MOHAMMAD MAHALLATI, Former Iranian Diplomat: I think they oppose the strict interpretation of Islamic rule, while not rejecting Islamic rule at large. I think there are four elements, which contribute to the landslide victory for the reformists. One is that we are dealing with totally a new generation, considering that Iran is the youngest country in the world, more than 50 percent of the population have been born after the revolution in the last 20 years, and they want to come in to real politics. It reminds me somehow of the slogan of change which helped President Clinton come into the office. Now the new generation wants change. The second factor has been the media factor. Media, articulate, open media has educated people to a great level, creating transparency and also showing people that there are no political infallibles, namely that they can attack, criticize all, you know, the current political leaders. And third is that Khatami showed in practice that change…

MARGARET WARNER: The president?

MOHAMMAD MAHALLATI: The President, Khatami showed that change can be achieved through constitutional means and by constitutional means.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Daniel Pipes, who are these reformers who have been elected? Where have they been?

DANIEL PIPES, Middle East Quarterly: Well, the reformers are to a large extent people who have become disillusioned with the radicalism of the Islamic revolution. If you can remember back 20 years ago, this was a fervent event. This was anti-American, anti-establishment, anti-everything — and 20 years later, a little bit hungry, a little bit wiser, they’re coming around to realize their radical ideas didn’t work. And many of the leaders today interestingly were leaders back 20 years ago, then radicals now much more moderate.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with Ambassador Mahallati, though, that the environment that already is existing in Iran in terms of a freer press or this new president in a way helped set the stage for this?

DANIEL PIPES: Well, to the extent that the Iranian government allows election to take place, yes. But otherwise, one finds very great reluctance among the Iranian leadership to allow the people to have freedom. And what the Iranian people are saying is, “we want freedom. We want the rule of law. We want to have the ability to go learn about things from outside. We want to be less Muslim in all aspects of our life. It’s effectively rebellion against the status quo, a rebellion against the Islamic revolution, not a changing of it. It’s saying no, as much as people can, they’re saying, no, we don’t like this. We want something else.

MARGARET WARNER: So Professor Bakhash, how are the clerics likely to respond? Are they just going the lie down and let this happen?

SHAUL BAKHASH: In fact, part of the leadership of this reform movement comes from within the clerical community. A new generation, as Ambassador Mahallati said, of reformers. Iran, after all, is now… now has some of the most exciting politics in the countries of Middle East. There will be, I think, be a resistance, but after the election results we have seen this week, it seems to me very difficult for the conservatives to stop this engine of reform.

MARGARET WARNER: So you don’t see any prospect that they do control the army, that there would be any kind of use of force to resist this?

SHAUL BAKHASH: I don’t think there will be the use of force. And over the last two years, we have seen the conservatives bring their arsenal on the table. They killed dissidents. They attacked student dormitories. They closed newspapers. They arrested critics. None of it has worked. And the reform movement just keeps going.

MARGARET WARNER: So Mr. Ambassador, what is… the reformers have quite an ambitious agenda, as we’ve discussed — rule of law, greater press freedom. Are they going to be able to deliver?

MOHAMMAD MAHALLATI: Indeed. They have been indeed been able to deliver already. Look at the extent of the change in a number of ministries, ministry of Islamic culture and guidance — minister of intelligence. Already they have gone through a major overhaul. And in other institutions, non-related to the executive body also, we have seen changes. For example, consider judicial body. That is very much in favor of judicial development, as they call it.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think they’re going to be able to really pass legislation to change, not just taking personnel, but actually changing the way — the relationship, for instance, between the civil government and civil society and the clerics who right now have this sort of superstructure over everything else?

MOHAMMAD MAHALLATI: Not only because of the majority that they have gained, they will be able to bring about a change from within the legislative body, but also we should consider the fact that in the past, and the present, lots of clerics have shown tremendous ability for adaptation, for going into metamorphosis. The president we know today is not the same person as ten years ago. The supreme leader today is not the same person. They have adapted themselves through changes and events. So my expectation is that we will have a new parliament which will be very forceful in seeking civil liberties and economic development. And then we will see that the magic of dismissal will…

MARGARET WARNER: The magic of what?

MOHAMMAD MAHALLATI: The magic of dismissal will bring a change overall in the conservative body. What part of the body of the democrats today have been formerly the left party. And they have dismissed in the last eight years. That’s what I call the magic of dismissal. They have pushed them for further education, and they have brought about the change in their view.

MARGARET WARNER: Daniel Pipes, what is your expectation in terms of real change?

DANIEL PIPES: I’m afraid I’m more pessimistic, Margaret, than the ambassador. For me the ultimate levers of power remain in the hands of the hard-liners, the spiritual leader, the supreme guide and his people. They still control the armed forces, the police, the intelligence, the judiciary, the electronic media, the economic mainstays, the brown shirts, the thugs. Finally, it’s they who make the decision. What we see here is a grand protest movement. It’s a protest movement that has huge implications for the future of Iran. It is a statement by if Iranian people saying, “no, we reject the Islamic republic.” But in the short term, they don’t have much of a say. They can protest, but they can’t control. The control remains in the hands of the hard-liners. The foreign policy that we’re concerned about as Americans is going to stay in place. So long term this is great news. Short term it doesn’t really make much difference.

MARGARET WARNER: Where do you come down on this question?

SHAUL BAKHASH: Margaret, the conservatives control the radio and television, but it had no effect on the election results at all. It was the reformist newspapers that set public opinion. I think the reformers will move to guarantee greater freedom of press and political organization. They will insist on depolitization of the judiciary. They will try to impose parliamentary oversight over the intelligence agencies. They will try to make the big para-statal organizations that control hundreds of nationalized and expropriated enterprises accountable to the governments. So it may be a difficult agenda, but I think it’s there on the table.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do you feel… Do you agree with Daniel Pipes that we won’t see much changes in foreign affairs, for instance, the relationship with the United States?

SHAUL BAKHASH: I think the reformers do want a better relationship with the U.S., But their focus at the moment is on the domestic agenda. Besides an improvement of relations between Iran and the U.S. will require a change in attitude not only in Iran, but on the part of the U.S., as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, Mr. Ambassador, what are your expectations in terms of the relationships with the United States?

MOHAMMAD MAHALLATI: The foreign minister on record has said, even before the election, that the election will have an implication for foreign policy. I believe that looking at the slogans of many of the winners, they have said that, look, the question of normalization of relations between Iran and the United States is no more the domain or the decision of the government, but it’s the people’s decision.

MARGARET WARNER: What about the Professor’s Bakhash’s point that that’s not the priority right now?

MOHAMMAD MAHALLATI: Well, I think the priority for a good part of the parliament will be economic progress. And they know for a fact that without strong relations with international financial institutions it’s not much doable. And that means that there are certain bearings in terms of U.S.-Iran relationship.

MARGARET WARNER: So Daniel Pipe, who do you think there won’t be much change between the U.S. and Iran in the short or medium term?

DANIEL PIPES: Let’s look at the three main concerns of the United States government that have been on the table for years. It is the Iranian building of weapons of mass destruction, the Iranians support for terrorism, and the Iranian opposition of the peace process between the Arabs and Israel. None of these are in debate. The reformers are not telling the hard liners, hey, we don’t like what you’re doing, change it. Nothing. So I look at this and say there’s no reason to expect any change.

MARGARET WARNER: What about the ambassador’s point that if to improve the economy Iran will need better relations with the West, and therefore even if it’s driven through a back door… I’m mixing my metaphors, but in any event, there will be pressure on that front?

DANIEL PIPES: Pressure to improve the economy, sure — pressure to take care of the three points I mentioned – the weapons, the terrorism and the peace process, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Nobody’s talking about it. So long term again, this is great news. Short term, it has for us as Americans very few implications.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you very much all three of you.