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Iran's Conservatives Consolidate Power

Critics Fear Reform Movement Will Be Shut Down, Restrictions Broadened

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page A10

TEHRAN -- After eight years of a bold but bungled experiment with reform, Iran's government is in the throes of a takeover by conservatives determined to restore the revolution's Islamic purity, according to Iranian politicians and analysts.

The transformation is symbolized by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose limited scholarly credentials were questioned even by his peers when he was selected 15 years ago. His authority caused a national debate during the reform era, when he was in danger of being sidelined politically, analysts said.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, Iran's supreme leader, led prayers on Nov. 14 to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan. (Vahid Salemi -- AP)

Today, however, they said, Khamenei is more powerful than at any time since 1989, when he succeeded the leader of Iran's Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Critics said his control is as far-reaching as that of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi before he was overthrown in 1979.

"The pendulum has swung. Khamenei is in a better position than he's ever been," a senior Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the subject. "There's a real cockiness in the stride of his camp."

Khamenei's consolidation of power, partly through a new parliament that took office in May, has given even more leverage to religious institutions, including the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards and vigilante groups such as Ansar Hezbollah, analysts said.

As a result, fear, intimidation and harassment have become instruments of the state in ways reminiscent of the early fervor following the 1979 revolution, Iranians complain. Women can still get away with relaxed dress, but the debates over political openings and reforming Islam have gone behind closed doors, or ended.

Conservatives say they are merely putting the Islamic republic back on course and restoring limits on discourse while not undoing social change.

"Islamic values in all aspects of the system are necessary to sustain the system. . . . And nobody can change them according to his taste or interpretation," said Hussein Shariatmadari, a leading ideologue and editor of the Kayhan newspaper chain.

"For instance, it is not important that women wear the chador or wear light colors or dark colors, but they should wear decent hijab," or traditional veils, he added. "When we talk about Islamic values, that's what we mean. . . . Voting and higher education for women have not been forbidden."

But critics warn of a future with further restrictions, particularly after a presidential election next year that many Iranians expect conservatives to win.

"We are going to move from something trying to be a democratic government to what will become a totalitarian regime," said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a reformist editor who has been jailed three times and who has worked for five newspapers that have been closed. "Conservatives think this democratization trend has to be stopped."

Beyond Khamenei, Iran's future is still far from settled. The big question in Tehran these days is about which conservatives will dominate. Their camp now offers at least four distinct philosophies about running the country and dealing with the outside world:

• The ideological conservatives take the most puritanical line. They are sometimes called Kayhanis, after the newspapers that reflect their views. Shariatmadari, their editor, is the faction's most public voice. They take a tough stance in dealing with the outside world and on Iran's nuclear energy program.

Shariatmadari, a slight man with a neat salt-and-pepper beard who wields enormous influence, opposed a deal signed this month under pressure from Europe to suspend uranium enrichment for Iran's nuclear energy program, which critics say could be diverted for a nuclear weapons program. "I believe that we should have exited the Non-Proliferation Treaty two years ago," he said in an interview.

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