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THE PROCESS OF reform that was initiated by Iran's President Syed Mohammed Khatami after he assumed office in 1997 appears to have come to an end with his conservative opponents securing a majority in parliament. Mr. Khatami was not able to advance his agenda even when his supporters had an absolute majority from 2000 until the parliamentary poll held last Friday. Unelected bodies dominated by the conservatives, such as the judiciary and the Council of Guardians, had obstructed the efforts of the legislative and administrative wings to liberalise the political culture. With the conservatives wresting control of the national legislature, Mr. Khatami can do little more than serve out the last year of his term. The Iranian President bears much of the blame for creating this sorry situation since his failure to confront his opponents only encouraged them to wage a counter-campaign. He ought to have stood by his supporters when the Council barred almost 2000 pro-reform candidates, including 80 members of the outgoing parliament, from contesting the elections. While liberal parties demonstrated in protest and Ministers and Provincial Governors threatened to resign, Mr. Khatami petitioned for a review of the disqualification orders. He ended his mild show of dissent once the Supreme Religious Leader, Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei, insisted that elections should be held on schedule.

Mr. Khatami and those who hold office under him do not have many honourable options. They might be tempted to quit their posts and launch a mass movement to protest against the pre-ordained election result. However, the prospects for an extra-parliamentary form of struggle do not look bright against the background of the Iranian masses not heeding the liberals' call for a boycott of the polls. The Interior Ministry, which is controlled by reformers, has confirmed that almost 50 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots. While voter participation in this election was significantly lower than in the polls that were held when the reform movement was at its peak, the figures do not suggest there was a mass boycott. It is possible that many Iranians have become disenchanted with liberal politicians who have consistently failed to live up to their promises. The most vigorous constituents of the reform movement, organisations representing students and women, no longer see any merit in the excuses given by the pro-reform parties for non-performance. A new generation that has come of age during confrontations spread over the last seven years is likely to pick up the banner of the struggle to change the system.

While the result of the parliamentary poll might suggest that the conservatives will be able to elect one of their own as President in 2005, this is by no means a foregone conclusion. The conservatives are not a monolithic bloc and there does not seem to be any obvious candidate behind whom they can rally. A squabble over the candidacy might become just one of the reasons for infighting within this camp. While a section of the conservative bloc consists of die-hard reactionaries, others do appreciate the need for change especially in the economic sphere. An international context, in which Iran is under pressure to disclose and dismantle its nuclear weapons programme and to undertake socio-political reform, will also have its impact. For all the rhetoric from the conservatives, there are some among them who are not averse to a reconciliation with the "Great Satan." Ayatollah Khamenei, who has emerged as the real winner of the struggle between conservatives and liberals, will now have to work hard to control his cohorts.

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