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Iranian Politics

1990-2004: The Death of Khomeini and the Reformists

During the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97), reformists controlled a majority of seats in parliament until 1992 and supported Rafsanjani's policies for economic reform and the normalization of relations with neighboring countries. The conservatives won a majority of seats in both the 1992 and 1996 parliamentary elections and subsequently used their position in the legislature to weaken or stop outright many reforms proposed by the Rafsanjani government.

Elections were held in the fall of 1998 for the 86-member Assembly of Experts. The Council of Guardians disqualified numerous candidates, which led to criticism from many observers that the Government improperly predetermined the election results.

In February 1999, elections for nationwide local councils were held for the first time since the 1979 revolution. Government figures indicated that roughly 280,000 candidates competed for 130,000 council seats across the nation. Women were elected to seats in numerous districts. The Councils did not appear to have been granted the autonomy or authority to make them effective or meaningful local institutions; doing so would have been viewed as a threat to the control of the central Government.

Elections were held for the 290-seat Majles in February 2000. Of more than 6,000 candidates, 576 were disqualified before the elections by the Council of Guardians, which represented a substantial decrease from the 44 percent who were disqualified before the 1996 elections. Most of those disqualified were outspoken advocates of political reform, including some of the most prominent supporters of then President Khatami. However, candidates with a wide range of views were permitted to run. The elections resulted in a landslide victory for moderate and reform candidates, who constituted a large majority in the Majles. In June 2001, elections were held for Majles seats. The Council of Guardians reportedly disqualified 100 potential candidates, more than one-quarter of those wishing to run. Largely due to the disqualification of reform candidates, conservative candidates or conservatives running as independents won all six seats up for election. Vigorous parliamentary debates took place regarding various issues. However, the Supreme Leader and other conservatives within the Government used constitutional provisions to block much of the early reform legislation passed by the Majles.

Mohammad Khatami, a former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance who was impeached in 1992 by the Majles for "liberalism" and "negligence," was reelected President in 2001 with 77 percent of the vote. The UNSR reported that the Guardian Council significantly limited the number of candidates permitted to run and noted that the Interior Minister denounced the "unprincipled disqualification" of candidates. Mohammad Khatami was elected to a second 4-year term as President in a popular vote in June 2001, with 77 percent of the vote. Reformers and moderates won a landslide victory in the February 2000 Majles election, and constituted a majority of that body. However, the Council of Guardians and other elements within the Government blocked much of the early reform legislation passed by the Majles.

In 2001 approximately 60 parliamentarians were arrested and charged with "inciting public opinion." The cases were a result of the ongoing conflict between reformist parliamentarians and the conservative judiciary over precisely what type of speech was protected by parliamentary immunity. The harassment of Majles members continued throughout the year.

During 2002, at least 17 Majles members were called before the courts for criticizing the Government in one form or another. 1 was sentenced to 40 lashes and another fined. At year's end, there was no information available on whether either sentence was carried out. During 2001 approximately 60 reformist Majles members were reportedly brought to court for a variety of alleged offenses, and although no precise figures were available, that trend continued during the year.

In January 2002 reformist members of Parliament staged a walkout to protest pro-reform Parliamentarian Hossein Loqmanian's imprisonment, which led the Supreme Leader to pardon him after he had spent several weeks in prison. In December 2001, Loqmanian began serving a 13-month sentence for insulting the judiciary. He became the first Majles member to serve a jail sentence. Two other Majles members resigned their seats to protest Loqmanian's imprisonment. These cases resulted from the ongoing conflict between reformist Parliamentarians and the hard-line judiciary over precisely what type of speech was protected by parliamentary immunity. Furthermore, Parliamentarians convicted of crimes could be barred from running for the Majles again, since the law prohibited persons with criminal records from running for office.

The local council elections were held again in February 2003. Iran staged its second-ever municipal-council elections on 28 February 2003. Campaigning for the elections began on 20 February 2003 and would continue until midnight on 26 February 2003. Candidates were competing for some 168,000 positions in cities, villages, and townships. Campaigning candidates were banned from writing on walls, forming campaign convoys, and covering traffic signs with posters.

Between 35 million eligible voters (according to the Plan and Budget Organization) and 39 million eligible voters (according to the State Registration Office and IRNA) were eligible to vote in the previous municipal elections in 1999. The voting age at that time was 16. The voting age was subsequently lowered to 15, and more than 44.5 million Iranians, everyone born before 8 June 1986, were eligible to vote in the May 2001 presidential election, according to IRNA. Every Iranian born before 28 February 1988 would be eligible to vote in the next election. As of July 2002, the population was estimated to be 66,622,704, and 68.4 percent of the population was estimated to be 15 or older. This meant that there were approximately 45.6 million eligible voters.

Enthusiasm for the councils in big cities like Tehran may have waned because of their overall failure to empower reformists. It was fairly clear that Tehran's 15 council seats had gone to conservative candidates with almost 550,000 of the ballots counted by the afternoon of 2 March 2003. More than 566,000 (12.1 percent) out of Tehran's 4.68 million-person electorate voted, IRNA reported on 3 March 2003. This fell far below earlier reports. Executive board official Parvaneh Mafi said on 1 March 2003 that between 15 and 20 percent of the Tehran electorate voted, and Tehran Governor Ali-Awsat Hashemi said that the turnout in the capital was 25 percent, IRNA reported. Overall, 11,691,216 voters from 21 out of the country's 28 provinces voted, IRNA reported on 3 March 2003.

Reformists in Iran found themselves in a difficult political position, domestically and in terms of foreign policy by the end of 2003 and through 2004. The US invasion of Iraq and disputes over the nature and size of the Iranian nuclear program forced the rhetoric of Iranian leaders, including President Khatami, to become more conservative in nature. Khatami on a number of occasions openly challanged the United States position in Iraq, suggeting that it threatened to destabilize the entire region and grossly violated Iraqi sovreignty. Furthermore, despite continued claims that the nuclear program was purely for civilian purposes, a right protected under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, international speculation varied widely, with much of the European Union, the United States, and Israel suggesting that the program was a front for a weapons development project.

International tensions flared in June 2004 when a number of British sailors were detained by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps while generally believed to be in international waters. While negotiations led to their release, it left British-Iranian relations at a new low.

By the end of 2004, the Madjlis had agreed with the Iranian President that a nuclear program for peaceful purposes was Iran's right, showing that it had become an important issue in Iranian domestic politics. Disagreements continued on how the country should proceed, however, and how to engage the international community. A conservative resurgance was on the horizon, bolstered by serious pressure from the international community to confirm the rhetoric of conservative politicians that various actors were trying to hold Iran back.




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