Sunday, May 29, 2005

Khamenei's Muscle

LA Times Editorial:
While his envoys were engaged in diplomatic negotiations in Geneva this week, Iran's top cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was engaged in political maneuvers in Tehran. Progress in the first activity may depend on the results of the second.

In Tehran, Khamenei removed whatever tiny doubt remained about who calls the political shots: What he says, goes. There's a reason he's called the supreme leader, and forget any nonsense like free elections. On Sunday, the country's Guardian Council, the unelected dozen who keep tabs on the country's Islamic constitution, disqualified more than 1,000 people hoping to run for president next month. All women were knocked out; no surprise there. But so were all candidates except six conservatives. READ MORE

Yet a day later Khamenei urged the council to reconsider. It did so, adding the names of two men considered more reform-minded than the original six. The more prominent of the two, former Minister of Science, Research and Technology Mostafa Moin, is popular with students. Even if he does not win, letting him run is a canny decision because it could increase voter turnout.

Greater participation is important not just for domestic political reasons — high voter turnout would allow the clerics to claim that Iranians like things fine just the way they are, thank you — but because a president who can claim to represent many Iranians, if not most, would be in a stronger negotiating position with Europe and the United States over Iran's nuclear program.

Iran has long insisted that its nuclear program is only for energy, but other nations worry it is intended for weapons. Negotiators reached a breakthrough Wednesday, with Iran agreeing not to seek nuclear weapons, in exchange for trade and other considerations from Europe. The agreement bore immediate fruit, with the World Trade Organization announcing on Thursday that it would allow Iran to open membership talks.

Whether the deal sticks — and Iran's record does not inspire confidence — it is an encouraging sign, and the Bush administration admitted as much by dropping its long-standing objection to Iran's participation in WTO discussions.

Attention now turns, naturally, to Iran's internal politics. The current president, Mohammad Khatami, is a moderate who is barred from seeking a third term. The front-runner in next month's race is familiar: Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and political chameleon who has managed to shift with the winds of change since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei toppled the shah more than a quarter of a century ago. But his popularity with the young is doubtful.

The increasing anger and apathy of their citizens should tell the country's theocratic rulers that religious repression is as unpopular in Iran as the secular version is in Uzbekistan or the Stalinist version was in the Soviet Union. And in a more forward-looking government, Iran's success in Geneva would encourage its leaders to make the election be about Iran's growing economy and the benefits of membership in the WTO.

Khamenei's machinations dim that possibility; these aren't subjects favored by the conservative clerics he has handpicked to run for office. The election is scheduled for June 17, three weeks from today. It was already one of the most important elections in the world this year. It now also promises to be one of the most watched.
We can only hope that the world pays attention the Iranian elections later this month.