This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini orchestrated the fall of the monarchy and ushered in an Islamic regime. On the surface, Tehran is awash in revolutionary fervor. Colorful lights are strung between street lamps, and huge portraits of Khomeini and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adorn the fronts of many buildings.
But the capital is also filled with disillusionment and anger. Nearly 130 sitting parliamentarians resigned last week to protest the barring of more than 3,500 candidates from elections scheduled for Feb. 20. The leading reformist party is promising to boycott the elections. Khamenei is insisting that they be held as planned, and conservative candidates are expected to edge aside the reformists who have run the government since 1997. "Other countries in the region are moving toward democracy, but we're moving in the opposite direction--toward a religious monarchy," says Issa Saharkhiz, editor of the reformist magazine Aftab.
Iran's conservatives are not relying only upon electoral shenanigans to cement their hold on power. Until now the world has been mostly familiar with the more extreme face of the conservative camp, epitomized by the Guardian Council, responsible for scratching more-liberal candidates from the ballot, and by the likes of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who regularly blasts protesting students as traitors and refuses any dialogue with the United States. Now, analysts say, a new movement of "can do" conservatives is rising to the fore. These men, who include former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, hope to win over cynical Iranians by breaking the longstanding political deadlock, strengthening the country's ties to the rest of the world and, importantly, projecting concern about people's pocketbooks. "Many conservatives have openly adopted the China model. It has been mentioned in official speeches," says economist Sayeed Leylaz. "This model would allow for economic reform without budging on political issues."
The rising star of this conservative movement is Hassan Rowhani, a cleric who heads the Supreme National Security Council. Many believe he's being groomed as the next president. Rowhani, 55, led Iran's nuclear negotiations with European Union ministers last fall. He followed up that high-profile deal with a visit to Paris last month to discuss Iran's nuclear program with French President Jacques Chirac. Unlike reformist politicians, Rowhani, who holds a Ph.D. in law from Glasgow University, is trusted by Supreme Leader Khamenei, which allows him to negotiate with authority. "He's not a charmer--he's a dealer," says one Western diplomat in Tehran. "Rowhani and people like him prefer survival to ideology. They would be willing to deal or sacrifice some of the sacred cows of the revolution if they got the right price."
One possible result: a rapprochement with the United States. There have been some positive signs. Two weeks ago Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, met with a half-dozen members of Congress to discuss regional issues. It was only the second time an Iranian diplomat had visited Washington since 1979. And last month Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met with Sen. Joseph R. Biden in Davos, Switzerland. Neither of these meetings could have happened without a green light from conservatives at the top. "By negotiating with America we can decrease international pressure on ourselves," says Amir Mohebian, political editor for the conservative daily Resalat. "Chanting 'Death to America' is not a goal in itself."
Closer relations could have a wide- ranging impact. Iran has the fourth largest oil reserves, and second largest natural-gas reserves, in the world. But production is limited by old technology, lack of capital investment and few partnerships with Western oil majors. If Washington were to drop sanctions, say analysts, Iran's oil production could jump by 20 percent, boosting state revenues by billions of dollars.
Indeed, improving Iran's economic fortunes could buy the conservatives the kind of widespread legitimacy they currently lack. The biggest issues are unemployment (roughly 20 percent), privatization and the need to attract foreign investment. Iran receives roughly $20 billion in foreign investment, mostly in the oil and gas sector, but nearly 80 percent of the economy is bogged down by inefficient, corrupt state-run institutions. Reformists' efforts to liberalize this sector and open the economy to foreign money, and ideas, have thus far been stymied. Two weeks ago Finance Minister Tahmasb Mazaheri announced the drafting of legislation aimed at selling off more than 400 state-owned companies. It remains to be seen whether the government can follow through with this type of sweeping initiative, but overhauling the public sector is one element of the reformist agenda that conservatives could well adopt.
Either way, the key to the success of this new conservative group is growing public cynicism. During municipal elections last year, turnout was extremely low, which gave conservatives their first victory at the ballot box since reformist President Mohammed Khatami was elected in 1997. Many ordinary Iranians have lost hope of drastic political reform, and have tired of Khatami's multiple, never-fulfilled threats to resign. (Last week he caved in again and agreed to stage the elections as scheduled.) "The public has lost faith in the situation," says the Western diplomat. "They think the parliamentarians are fighting for themselves. Everyone seems to hate the regime, and has lost respect for the reformists."
Even students, typically the most outspoken force in Iranian society, have barely stirred themselves over the current electoral controversy. Conservatives are counting on most voters to stay home on Feb. 20, and on those who do show up to vote for the camp that already seems to have all the power anyway. "In the next round of reform, the flag will switch to the other side," says Mohebian. "The reformists haven't been able to fulfill their promises. The people want to see results."
Still, that support will be fragile. Even old-school revolutionaries are troubled by where the country seems to be heading. Mohsen Rahami, a respected cleric and a law professor at Tehran University, identifies more with the parliamentarians who resigned than with their rivals. He accuses hard-liners of playing dirty by sending representatives to the lawmakers' neighborhoods to gather information about their daily life, particularly their devotion to Islam. He speaks from experience. Two years ago Rahami was disqualified from running for Parliament after government representatives canvassed his neighborhood to collect information on him. "They came and asked my neighbors, 'Does he pray?' " Rahami says, flinging his hands up in exasperation. "The ground floor of my house is a Husseiniya [Shiite mosque]! I taught people in my neighborhood how to pray! It can really make a person bitter."
That kind of bitterness will not be easily salved. The regime in Beijing has been able to buy some breathing room with stellar economic growth. The regime in Tehran has less credibility to start with, and can hardly expect the same kind of boom. For now conservatives will have to focus on the elections and the dozens of irate reformists who are hellbent on preventing them. If they do find themselves holding all the reins of power, though, Iran's can-do conservatives may find they have more to do than they think.