February 21, 2008


New parliament, new policies?: It's no longer reformists against conservatives in Iran but pragmatic conservatives against the hardliners (The Economist, 2/21/08)

ITS rulers have long boasted that Iran has the only democratic government in a region of despots and monarchs. The country's parliament, or majlis, is certainly not the rubber-stamp body that rules most of the Arab roosts. But the election due on March 14th shows why Iran's system of government is so hard to categorise. The ballot may be neither free nor fair, but the candidates vary, competition can be fierce and the results are hard to predict. Virtually no one predicted victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential race three years ago.

For observers who regard this democratic glass as half-full, the mere fact that the election's results are hard to call is a cause for celebration. “With all its serious flaws,” says Mohsen Milani, a leading Iranian scholar, “it is through this process that changes in Iranian policy and behaviour can be expected.” [...]

Mr Ahmadinejad's weak spot is the economy. Thanks as much to his mismanagement as to international sanctions, Iran is a rare big oil-producing country where economic conditions have worsened despite a tripling of oil prices. This may help the pragmatic conservatives. But it is hard to gauge feelings outside the capital. Though Tehran is Iran's political heart and soul, the low turnout among disaffected urban sophisticates means they no longer set the political pace. And Mr Ahmadinejad has been careful to lavish spending on the provinces.

Iranian politics are dominated by personalities and factions rather than political parties. This confers an advantage on the hardliners, who can call on state organisations such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia to turn out their vote. Yet elections in Iran often surprise. The pragmatists might still do well in the majlis elections. That would not change Iran at a stroke: the lesson of the Khatami era was that real power lay with the supreme leader rather than with parliament. But a rebuff in the majlis election could damage Mr Ahmadinejad's chances of remaining president after June next year—and send a powerful signal of discontent to the supreme leader himself.

Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were pragmatic conservatives, but you'd be hard pressed to say they weren't reformers. Ayatollah Khamenei has as much reason to reform the economy as anyone, because he's trying to save the Republic. That's why he opposed Ahmedinejad to begin with.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 21, 2008 3:50 PM
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