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Prospects Uncertain as Reformists Unite in Iran

An Iranian woman walks past election posters in northwest Tehran, Iran, on Thursday.
Atta Kenare
AFP/Getty Image
An Iranian woman walks past election posters in northwest Tehran, Iran, on Thursday.

Iran is holding elections for its parliament Friday, and Iranian reformers are hoping for a comeback.

Reformers in Iran controlled parliament from the late-1990s to 2004. Since that time, they have been all but shut out of politics.

But as Iran's economy has worsened — with growing inflation and unemployment — conservative leaders have turned to squabbling about who is to blame, providing an opportunity for Iran's reformers.

One of the charges conservatives level against the reformists is that they don't support the country's nearly 30-year-old system of Islamic government.

But for the reformists, the key issue is the economy. Inflation is at 20 percent, unemployment is rising, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made promises of prosperity that he and his conservative supporters in parliament have been unable to fulfill.

Reformist candidate Behzad Gareyazi believes the conservatives are vulnerable on economic issues.

"People who are voting will consider the situation they are living in and the situation they were in the previous government or administration. In [former] President [Mohammad] Khatami's administration, I believe people think they had a better livelihood," Gareyazi says.

The reformists must overcome considerable obstacles if they are to regain even a substantial minority of seats in the parliament. Hundreds of reformers were disqualified by the Guardian Council, which has ultimate say over who can be a candidate in Iran.

The council is appointed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields final authority in the country.

As a result, the two main slates of reformists have not been able to nominate enough candidates to run for all the seats in the 290-seat parliament.

The campaign is very short, less than a week, and the reformists don't have access to state-controlled media. But Iranians are familiar with this battle between conservatives and reformers. It has dominated politics here for more than a decade.

The conservatives have sought to portray the reformers as enemies of the Islamic Republic. At a meeting this week of the United Front of Fundamentalists, Mohammad Nabi Habibi, the party's secretary, charged that the Islamic Republic is under threat from secularists.

"They are outsiders," Habibi said. "Our main goal is to fill the seats in parliament, so ... the enemies of the Islamic Revolution can't gain control."

The conservatives may have some problems of their own in this election. They are running five separate slates — some that support Ahmadinejad's policies, others that are critical of him and led by well-known personalities who hope to replace him in next year's presidential election.

Iranians understand that what can be achieved in elections like this is limited. But at a rally Wednesday in Islamshahr, a small city on the southern outskirts of Tehran, there were still those who expressed the hope that participation in elections, however imperfect, can bring change to Iran.

Abdullah Mersali, a high school English teacher, was among those in the crowd.

"We are going to tell to other countries that we can make better our community, we can make better our future, by this election," Mersali said.

Results in Iran's parliamentary election are not expected until next week.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.