Mohammad Ali Abtahi tried hard to adopt the dour and serious face of a key political operative on the eve of an important election race. He failed.
"I'm sorry, I just can't help but smile," he explained, a wide grin emerging from his neatly trimmed black beard. "It just makes me very happy to think that we will soon win control of the parliament," he said, exuding confidence ahead of critical parliament elections on February 18. Abtahi, who serves as reformist President Mohammad Khatami's chief of staff, can be forgiven a certain degree of confidence.
After all, two and a half years after President Khatami rocked Iran's conservative political establishment with a resounding election victory on a platform of political and social liberalization, the reformist President remains wildly popular across the country and most analysts are predicting a reformist victory in the country's most important parliament elections since the 1979 revolution.
"I have no doubts that we will win," Abtahi, a reformist cleric in a soft brown robe, said, in an interview at the elegant presidential palace complex in Tehran, "and it will be quite a relief to President Khatami."
The conservative-controlled parliament, composed of clerics, laymen and women, has been a major obstacle to President Khatami's ability to implement reform-minded policies. Since taking office in May 1997, Khatami and his conservative opponents have been engaged in a power struggle for control of various state institutions. The parliament has been a key battleground. The conservative-held parliament has regularly defeated reform proposals, has sought to curbs to the reformist press, and has impeached one Khatami minister and is threatening impeach others.
In Iran, the parliament wields significant powers. The 270-member body writes legislation, including key judicial and investment laws. The president has no veto power. A sluggish economy, a devastating eight-year war with Iraq (1980-88), and repeated violations of personal and social freedoms by Iran's ruling clerics have left many Iranians embittered. Most conversations with middle-class Iranians in Tehran usually end up as diatribes against the country's ruling conservative clerics.
When Khatami (himself a cleric) presented himself as an alternative to conservative clerical rule two years ago, he was overwhelmingly elected with 70 percent of the vote. His support still remains strong. "There is no doubt that the country wants change and they see Khatami and the reformists as a vehicle for that change," said Mehrdad Serjooie, an Iranian journalist.
Meanwhile, conservative MP Hassan Ghafurri Fard says the reformist camp is unjustifiably overconfident. "They think they will win everything but in reality they have sent too many different candidates to the polls and that could confuse voters," he said in an interview in his Tehran offices. "This will be to our advantage."
The average regional ballot contains several names and some ballots in Tehran will contain up to 100 candidates. This could dilute reformist votes. It also is likely to lead to a second round of voting for many of the races because Iran's election system requires winning candidates to earn a minimum 25 percent majority in the first round to win the election. With numerous candidates, winners often earn less than 25 percent of votes and are then required to stand again in May in a run-off with other top vote-getters. Analysts foresee a wide number of the 290 seats (expanded from 270) expected to be inconclusive at the end of the elections.
While the national mood of the country favors the reformists, the outcome of the elections may not be as simple as hopeful reformists predict. In Iran, like most nations, local issues generally decide legislative elections. A familiar face or local hero may be just as likely to win as would a candidate endorsed by Khatami. These local figures could form an important bloc of independents in the future parliament, creating the most likely scenario: an increase in the independent bloc, small gains for the reformists and small losses for the conservatives.
The new Speaker of Parliament also remains a question mark. The most talked about candidate is the highly influential centrist cleric and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has lent his name to the conservative ballot, but remains close to moderate figures in the reformist camp. His name recognition alone is likely to win him a seat.
The more radical reformists have attacked Rafsanjani's record in the past month, blaming his presidency (from 1989-97) for the country's current economic ills. Moderate reformists, however, see Rafsanjani as a useful bridge between the two factions. As one political observer put it: "Rafsanjani is the only one who can pick up the phone and talk directly to President Khatami one minute and to [conservative] Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei the next."
In a press conference in late December, Rafsanjani said he supported all of Khatami's reform programs. While that might be viewed as an attempt to curry favor with voters, Rafsanjani is an astute political player. One way that Rafsanjani might support reform, analysts say, is by paving the way for improved ties with the United States an issue widely favored by both reformists and the general population. Analysts say it would require a figure like Rafsanjani, with powerful connections in both camps, to foster better ties with Washington.
Better ties with Washington could improve the likelihood that Central Asian oil and gas could be sent through Iran via the Persian Gulf to world markets. That route is favored by most Western oil companies, but is at present opposed by the United States government. Normalization could also boost Iran's growing ties with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all hampered by Washington's pressure on those states to distance themselves from Tehran.
As political observers wait with anticipation for the election results, the public seems to be thoroughly enjoying the campaign. At a recent rally for a moderate political party, light rock music filled the air and the mostly youthful crowd danced and flirted as a leading Islamic feminist, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani (daughter of the former President), peppered her speech with calls for freedom and democracy.
At another Tehran rally, A group of reformist students banged on drums and shouted slogans in support of Khatami. At the end of the rally, they sang Iran's pre-revolution national anthem, full of praise for Iran's ancient glories and containing no mention of Islam. The old national anthem, informally banned after the revolution, has reappeared recently. Conservative newspapers have blasted the reformist rallies as "un-Islamic", prompting a sharp retort from a reformist journalist: "Dictatorship is also un-Islamic."
Afshin Molavi is a journalist based in Tehran, Iran. His work has appeared in the Washington Post.