By Kamal Nazer Yasin*
In response to deepening domestic and social challenges, a neo-conservative movement is fast gaining influence in Iran, and now appears poised to take charge of shaping the country’s political agenda. This new force in Iranian politics features a blend of old-style devotion to the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution with new-found pragmatism on nagging domestic issues.
Perhaps as many as 80 MPs out of the 292-seat legislature are believed to be proponents of neo-conservative beliefs.
Many leaders of Iran’s neo-conservative movement, including Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nezhad, maintain close connections with the Revolutionary Guards, the chief enforcer of the Islamic Revolution. For much of the Islamic republic’s existence, there has been an effective taboo on the Revolutionary Guards’ involvement in politics. This taboo now appears to have been broken.
Neo-conservatives have grown increasingly assertive in recent months, especially after the controversial parliamentary elections in February that gave conservatives a stranglehold on the legislature. In March, a prominent neo-conservative and former Revolutionary Guards commander, Ezatollah Zarghami, was named to head Iran’s state television and radio network. Meanwhile, the head of the country’s judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, named a former Revolutionary Guards commander to be his legislative liaison.
According to political observers in Tehran, the neo-conservative movement is still taking shape. In particular, the movement’s leadership structure remains ill-defined. Perhaps as many as 80 MPs out of the 270-seat legislature are believed to be proponents of neo-conservative beliefs. The movement is believed to be steadily gaining adherents.
Many neo-conservatives are members of the second-generation of the Islamic revolution - people who were too young to play important roles in the 1979 overthrow of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In general, political experts say, the neo-conservatives share many of the same orthodox views held by the older generation of conservatives on the special, dominant role of Islam in Iranian society.
In sharp contrast to the older generation, however, the neo-conservatives seem unfazed by globalization issues and express a willingness to tackle the country’s myriad social and economic problems, especially unemployment. Iran’s old conservative guard, which is dominated by clerics, has largely avoided confronting the country’s daunting economic dilemmas.
There are indications that the Old Guard, including the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’i, has tacitly encouraged the neo-conservatives to assert themselves. The Supreme Leader’s office, along with other top Iranian institutions, has praised neo-conservative initiatives. On July 11, for example, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, the head of the Assembly of Experts, lauded Ahmadi-Nezhad, the conservative Tehran mayor, saying; "not only the people of Tehran, but the entire Iranian nation is pleased that a new management team has come to power at the Mayor’s Office."
Such statements are being interpreted by Tehran political observers as an admission by the Old Guard that the younger generation now offers the best hope for defending the ideals of the Islamic revolution. Many neo-conservatives lack an extensive track record of public service, and thus are believed to be better able to gain the trust and support of a wary population.
In general, conservative forces can rely on the support of 20 percent or less of Iran’s population. Conservatives have been able to wrestle power from reformists in recent years in part through the manipulation of the country’s religious oversight bodies, in particular the Council of the Guardians, and by taking advantage of public apathy generated by the inability of reformist forces to push through their legislative agenda.
In another sign that the neo-conservatives are in the ascendancy, institutions closely identified with the Old Guard - such as the Society of Combatant Clergy and the Islamic Coalition Association (ICA) - have recently seen their authority scaled back. Throughout the Islamic republic’s history, the ICA managed billions of dollars in various economic projects with little or no accountability for expenditures. Rumours are now circulating in Tehran that some ICA-affiliated organizations may soon be the targets of an anti-corruption investigation.
Some observers consider former Majles Speaker Hojjatoleslam Ali-Akbar Nateq Nouri, who officially serves as Khameneh’i’s chief of staff, as the chief liaison between the Old Guard leadership and members of the neo-conservative movement.
Influential conservative clerics appear to hope that the neo-conservatives will be able to restore the popular consensus for Islamic republican principles, which have eroded since 1997, following the election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami. The neo-conservatives are reputed to be strong supporters of Khamenei’s spiritual authority, and they currently enjoy a reputation of shunning corrupt practices. The also express a willingness to embrace new tactics, which are more in step with public preferences, in going about defending Iran’s Islamic orthodoxy.
The performance of Ahmadi-Nezhad’s mayoral administration in Tehran offers some insight into the neo-conservative movement’s operating methods. Its twin motto is "efficiency" and "clean government." Ahmadi-Nejad has sought to improve public services, including garbage collection, while seeking to reorient the city’s cultural policies. Tehran officials have closed down youth centres and music and film clubs, and instead pressed ahead with efforts to organise new youth-oriented religious programs.
In general, conservative forces can rely on the support of 20 percent or less of Iran’s population.
In addition to Iran’s political, social and economic problems, the confrontational stance adopted by the United States under the Bush administration has infused the neo-conservatives with a sense of urgency. The Bush administration, in which American neo-conservatives hold sway over Iranian policy, view Iran as a member of the "Axis of Evil," and, before US forces became bogged down in Iraq, often spoke of the need for regime change in Tehran.
Some observers in Tehran believe that the recent emergence of the Revolutionary Guards as a force in Iranian politics is a direct response to the country’s developing geopolitical challenges.
Given Iran’s complex political system, featuring elected and un-elected institutions, many observers say it is too early to tell whether the neo-conservative movement can gain enough traction, especially among the electorate, to successfully implement their agenda. At the same time, experts believe the neo-conservatives will soon have the opportunity to test their political leadership skills. ENDS IRAN CONSERVATIVES 14804
Editor’s Note: Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.
Highlights, some ediding and phonetisation of names are by IPS
This article was published by EurasiatNet on 25 July 2004