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Iran's conservatives consolidate power

After eight years of a bold but bungled experiment with reform, Iran's government is in the throes of a takeover by conservatives determined to restore the revolution's Islamic purity, according to Iranian politicians and analysts.
Irans Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei speaks at Tehrans Friday prayers
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at the University of Tehran on Nov. 5.Raheb Homavandi / Reuters file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

After eight years of a bold but bungled experiment with reform, Iran's government is in the throes of a takeover by conservatives determined to restore the revolution's Islamic purity, according to Iranian politicians and analysts.

The transformation is symbolized by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose limited scholarly credentials were questioned even by his peers when he was selected 15 years ago. His authority caused a national debate during the reform era, when he was in danger of being sidelined politically, analysts said.

Today, however, they said, Khamenei is more powerful than at any time since 1989, when he succeeded the leader of Iran's Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Critics said his control is as far-reaching as that of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi before he was overthrown in 1979.

"The pendulum has swung. Khamenei is in a better position than he's ever been," a senior Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the subject. "There's a real cockiness in the stride of his camp."

Khamenei's consolidation of power, partly through a new parliament that took office in May, has given even more leverage to religious institutions, including the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards and vigilante groups such as Ansar Hezbollah, analysts said.

As a result, fear, intimidation and harassment have become instruments of the state in ways reminiscent of the early fervor following the 1979 revolution, Iranians complain. Women can still get away with relaxed dress, but the debates over political openings and reforming Islam have gone behind closed doors, or ended.

Conservatives say they are merely putting the Islamic republic back on course and restoring limits on discourse while not undoing social change.

"Islamic values in all aspects of the system are necessary to sustain the system. . . . And nobody can change them according to his taste or interpretation," said Hussein Shariatmadari, a leading ideologue and editor of the Kayhan newspaper chain.

'Islamic values'
"For instance, it is not important that women wear the chador or wear light colors or dark colors, but they should wear decent hijab," or traditional veils, he added. "When we talk about Islamic values, that's what we mean. . . . Voting and higher education for women have not been forbidden."

But critics warn of a future with further restrictions, particularly after a presidential election next year that many Iranians expect conservatives to win.

"We are going to move from something trying to be a democratic government to what will become a totalitarian regime," said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a reformist editor who has been jailed three times and who has worked for five newspapers that have been closed. "Conservatives think this democratization trend has to be stopped."

Beyond Khamenei, Iran's future is still far from settled. The big question in Tehran these days is about which conservatives will dominate. Their camp now offers at least four distinct philosophies about running the country and dealing with the outside world.

• The ideological conservatives take the most puritanical line. They are sometimes called Kayhanis, after the newspapers that reflect their views and Shariatmadari, their editor, who is their most public voice. They take a tough stance in dealing with the outside world and on Iran's nuclear energy program.

Shariatmadari, a slight man with a neat salt-and-pepper beard who wields enormous influence, opposed a deal signed this month under pressure from Europe to suspend uranium enrichment for Iran's nuclear energy program, which critics say could be diverted for a nuclear weapons program. "I believe that we should have exited the Non-Proliferation Treaty two years ago," he said in an interview.

International treaties, he said, do not prevent nuclear proliferation. After India conducted a nuclear test, the United States imposed sanctions, only to lift them and deepen ties when U.S. interests shifted. "Such a situation urges us to have a nuclear bomb," Shariatmadari said.

At the same time, he said, the production of a bomb would not be accepted under Islamic belief, in part because such a weapon does not distinguish between an enemy and innocent civilians, and also because it is not an effective deterrent. "If all countries have this technology, then the world will be in chaos," he said.

This faction generally opposes renewing ties with the United States. Despite smaller numbers, its adherents are disproportionately powerful because they are highly vocal and are backed by vigilante groups such as Ansar Hezbollah.

• The new right, or neoconservatives, represent the most influential political faction. They have the largest presence in the new parliament, the judiciary and the powerful Guardian Council, a body of 12 unelected clerics that can veto new laws and political candidates.

They include leading candidates for Iran's presidency, such as Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister, and Ali Larijani, the chief of state broadcasting. Both are close to Khamenei.

The neoconservative platform mixes religious ideology with aspects of modernity. "Conservatism means conserving the letter and spirit of the constitution," said Mohammed Javad Larijani, an analyst and brother of the presidential contender.

This camp emphasizes Islamic thought, competent government and the private sector. "Jobs should be created by increasing production. We shouldn't create jobs by making government fatter than it is," he added.

This faction also developed a reluctant consensus on the deal with the Europeans to suspend uranium enrichment, analysts said. Its terms for reengaging with the United States, however, are tough.

• The pragmatic conservatives, once the most prominent faction, include former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and parties such as the Moderation and Development Party and the Servants of Construction. They are not bound by a rigid ideology, analysts said.

"They want to open up the economy, work within the established world order and culturally they're more relaxed," said Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University.

• The traditional conservatives are represented by the Shiite clergy, many of whom live in the holy city of Qom. Many tend to be less political, and are often secluded and focused more on Islamic culture. This faction also includes many bazaar merchants.

Although the largest group, it is now the least active in politics, analysts said.