Iran's young 'rookie' lawmakers
Peaceful protests across Iran intensified yesterday against conservatives' crackdown on reforms.
The euphoria of victory is wearing off for Iran's young reformers. Just one month away from taking their plush, red-trimmed seats as the new, boisterous majority in parliament, the gravity of their popular "coup" in February elections is settling in - and provoking anxiety.
Under unprecedented assault from hard-line conservative clerics, who see their grip on the Islamic republic slipping away, young reformers loyal to President Mohamad Khatami are soberly taking stock.
Unfamiliar with exercising power, the agenda of this new generation of leaders is grounded on civil rights, the people's will, and religion - the same ingredients that powered the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But a strong old-guard backlash - evident in recent days with the closure of more than a dozen pro-reform newspapers, the jailing of editors, and annulment of some election results - points to severe challenges ahead.
"I know there will be hard work and a heavy responsibility on my shoulders," says Fatema Haqiqat-Jou - at 31, the youngest woman to be elected to Iran's majlis, or parliament. "I am a bit concerned about whether we can fulfill the high expectations of the people."
Still, Ms. Haqiqat-Jou - who holds her chador, or shawl, closely around her face in conservative fashion, while at the same time sporting designer sleeves with Yves Saint-Laurent buttons - says she is "optimistic about the future of reforms," because the conservatives "have no choice but to let the new parliament do its work."
A handful of small protests over right-wing moves have been peaceful. But the message was clear on one student banner, which read: "The people's silence is not a sign of their consent."
Few of Iran's new elite have ever held office. "They may be a little naive and are not very prepared, but maybe that is not so important," says a senior Western diplomat. "What the country needs now is political determination, and the new members have strong political will."
A "new depth of crisis" has descended upon Iran in past weeks, the diplomat says. "There was euphoria after the election, and conservatives were so hurt by the results that all was quiet. But now they have recovered, and the counteroffensive is under way."
"Conservatives are trying to create as much trouble as they can," he adds, "but there are some red lines they can't cross, because of risks to the regime."
Among those red lines is somehow annulling the election victory, as some far-fetched rumors suggest, or preventing the next parliament from sitting.
"Power in Iran is gradually transferring to the second generation of the revolution," says Masam Saeedi, at 30 also one of the youngest new parliamentarians. "For the first time, people are voting for an agenda, not a personality."
The result has been a sea change in Iranian politics says Mr. Saeedi, who holds a masters degree in chemistry, and whose well-trimmed moustache and beard here indicates religious reverence.
"There is a confrontation between modernism and tradition, and this is the cost of the transformation period. These restrictions can't work anymore, because the reform discussion has reached very deeply," he says.
"We have to start the challenge one day, so it's better to start while we are young," he adds. "I think that defending the people's rights doesn't depend on your age, but on your skills."
Reformists now control two pillars of power in Iran - the presidency and parliament - but hard-liners still control the military, security, intelligence services, and largely influence the judiciary.
The most important challenge for the new parliament, says Haqiqat-Jou, is reconciling "different interpretations of Islam."
"Obviously people prefer our interpretation of individual and social rights and pluralism," she says adjusting her head scarf with elegant hands. "Islam is a method of living, and so should not be disliked by the people.... It's a fight we have to win."
Still, divisions have begun to appear. A dozen prominent reformers visited a conference in Berlin earlier this month, but selective video clips played back home by the conservative-controlled state television provoked an outcry.
While some say that reformers came off as patriots staunchly defending Iran, footage of anti-Iran protesters and an Iranian exile woman baring her arms in public and dancing - an illegal act in Iran - caused even Mr. Khatami to condemn the conference.
All the participants have been interrogated, and one, top reform editor Akbar Ganji, has been jailed.
"The reformists are providing their rivals with many reasons to attack," says one prominent newspaper editor, who asked not to be named. "Dancing was never shown on TV here for 20 years, but the rightists did it for political gain."
Some see the hand of the Iranian exile group Mujahideen e-Khalq (MKO) in the Berlin events, and note how similar the aims of the MKO and Iran's hard-liners - at least in tarnishing Khatami's image - may be today.
"For the MKO, if Khatami succeeds, that will be the popular consecration of the Islamic Republic, which they despise," says a Western diplomat. "And for the conservatives, if Khatami fails that opens the door to everything, including the fall of the regime."
The scandal shows how overheated Iran's political climate now is. "Every day in every other country, you see thousands of ladies dressed that way," the diplomat adds. "I am always surprised at the talent of this country to make such a major event out of nothing."
The fallout in Iran is very real, however. Saeedi says his constituents - who often expect to see a man twice his age speak to them - are enthusiastic when they hear him speak convincingly of social and economic problems that the next parliament must grapple with.
And for Haqiqat-Jou, the expectations of those 1 million Iranians who voted for her pile up everyday.
"Whenever I meet someone now, they present their personal difficulties as the most important thing," she says. "Retired people say 'Don't forget our pensions'; government workers say 'Don't forget to raise our salaries.' Expectations are very high."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society