USIS Washington File

17 February 2000

Panel Discusses Upcoming Iranian Elections

(Results could lead to improved relations with U.S.) (870)
By William B. Reinckens
Washington File Staff Writer 

Washington -- On the eve of the Majlis or Parliamentary elections in
Iran, a panel of scholars on Iran addressed the issue of what the
February 18 election will mean to Iranian voters and how it might
affect future U.S.- Iranian relations.

On February 16, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a
Congressional hearing that the United States "was looking at ways ...
that might lead to something different" in relations between Tehran
and Washington and that the election results could have a large
influence on how relations proceed.

Earlier, President Clinton said he hoped that the elections in Iran
would lead to "a constructive relationship" between the two countries.

At the same time, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei told voters to disappoint the United States by voting for
devout revolutionaries. "You can send a faithful and devout person to
parliament. ... God willing, people will show their support for Islam
and the Islamic system at the polls." He also called on voters to
reject candidates "scared or fascinated" by the West.

Despite such strong sentiments, Shaul Bakhash, a leading scholar on
contemporary Iranian politics said, "Iran is beginning to get a
government where politics and factions are important." He noted that
the election has a record 5,824 candidates. He also sees this election
as an expression of a growing confidence in the electoral process many
Iranians hope will lead to the easing of the strict Islamic rules that
have been in place for the last two decades.

Neither Iran's poor economy nor its foreign affairs are playing a
major role in this election, according to Farideh Farhi, a former
professor at Tehran University. She credits the growth of the reform
movement to a reaction against the removal of many of the local
governors and mayors last year.

More than 38 million Iranians are above the age of 16 and eligible to
vote. Of these about five million are political activists. Two hundred
ninety seats are being contested in this, the first of the two-round

These Iranian voters are divided into five distinct political groups
ranging from Left to Right, according to Farhi.

Some well-known Iranian names will be vying for elective office.
President Khatami's brother is running, as is the brother of Supreme
Leader Ali Hoseini Khamenei. Another candidate is Dr. Alireza Nouri,
brother of the popular dissident cleric, Abdollah Nouri who was jailed
last year for questioning Khamenei's authority. He also wrote a book
questioning what Iran has gained from its isolation from the West.

Another well-known Iranian, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani, is also running for a seat. Rafsanjani, who Farhi said is
trying to recast himself as a reformer, is expected to make a bid to
be the next Speaker of the Majlis.

The Iranian elections panel, which was held at the Wilson Center, was
moderated by Elaine Sciolino, of the New York Times and the reporter
who first interviewed Iranian President Khatami after his 1997
landslide victory.

All of the panelists agreed that Iran's independent newspapers have
kept the electorate informed and that television for the most part has
been a tool of the conservative elements inside Iran. Prior to the
election, several foreign broadcast news organizations reported
jamming by the Iranian authorities.

The panel also noted that President Mohammad Khatami's supporters hope
a big turnout will help them bring change to Iran.

As far as U.S.-Iranian relations are concerned, Robert Pelletreau,
former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said
that "Iranian-American differences are serious and cannot be simply
brushed away." However, he added "they are the product of modern
history and are not as deep or intractable as the ethno-national
conflicts seen elsewhere."

He spoke at an event sponsored by the Iranian Trade Association, a
group interested in expanding trade with Iran, and noted the
long-standing trading sanctions that the U.S. has applied to Iran.

There is some belief that after the elections Tehran might welcome
foreign investment to aid its ailing oil industry and weak economy and
develop job opportunities for its young population and unemployed
university graduates.

U.S. differences with the current Iranian government emerged on
February 3, when George Tenet, Director of the Central Intelligence
Agency, testified before Congress. He said Iran's development of the
Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile, "and the development of
longer-range missiles that have been the product of extensive Russian
assistance," are important U.S. concerns. Tenet added that "Iran's
emergence as a secondary supplier of this technology to other
countries is the trend that worries me the most."

Whatever results come out of the Iranian elections, said Dr. Jon B.
Alterman, a Middle Eastern scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and
who has just returned from visiting Iran, "the (U.S.-Iranian)
relationship will move along incrementally." There will be few major
or immediate breakthroughs, and conservatives and reformers will still
compete to control Iran's political life.

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