Iran reformists upbeat despite poll defeat

When Iran's new parliament sits for the first time on Tuesday, it will have an overwhelmingly conservative flavour, FT reported.

Between the hardliners who support President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and the moderate conservatives who advocate more market-oriented economic policies, fundamentalists will make up almost three-quarters of the new legislature.

Reformists, after suffering mass disqualifications of their candidates ahead of the March elections, will comprise only 15 per cent.

But far from being depressed about their lack of representation, many reformists are upbeat about the influence they will wield in the new parliament and in the presidential elections due to be held in a year's time.

"Although the reformists are in a minority, they still have a decent presence in the next parliament," said Mohammad Atrianfar, a former reformist city councillor in Tehran.

"And there are a lot of moderate fundamentalists who have the same ideas as reformists about Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, so there will be more criticism of the government because both reformists and fundamentalists will be attacking its economic and foreign policy," he said.

The moderate conservatives are led by Ali Larijani, the former nuclear negotiator and now MP for the religious city of Qom. He is a strong candidate to take the influential role of parliamentary speaker. This became more likely on Monday when Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, who held the post in the last parliament, announced he would not seek re-election.

Both men are presidential hopefuls, and both are likely to step up their attacks on Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's government in the coming year as they try to prove their credentials, analysts say.

Reformists are also likely to find allies among the independents in the new parliament, says Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a reformist cleric who was a deputy to the previous president, Mohammad Khatami.

"Most independents are reformists but they ran as independents because they did not want to be disqualified," Mr Abtahi said.

"So independents, plus reformists, plus some conservatives who might vote with us, equals greater unity. This coming parliament will have much more power to correct the government's behaviour."

A crucial question will be whether the reformists can harness this influence, and overcome internal squabbles, to put up a strong fight in next year's presidential elections.

"The reformist movement definitely needs some reform," said Ahmad Zeid-Abadi, a columnist in the influential reformist magazine Shahrvand. "The reformists are not co-ordinated enough, they don't have any clear specific plan. They are fragmented, full of differences, each shooting in their own direction."

Reformists are aware they need a good strategy for the year ahead.

"We need to convince people that reforms and the reformist parties in Iran will have a greater influence and will be able to deal with their problems, especially their economic problems," says Javad Etaat, a political scientist at Shahid Behesti University who ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the reformist Etemad-e Melli party.

But the biggest question mark hangs over the ability of the reformists to rally around one presidential candidate.

Mr Khatami retains a great deal of public support, but other potential contenders include Mehdi Karroubi, founder of Etemad-e Melli, and Mohammad-Reza Aref, who was a vice-president under Mr Khatami.

Mr Khatami was at the centre of controversy this month after he said that the founders of the revolution never meant Iran to "take up arms" to spread its ideals. Conservatives accused him of making unpatriotic comments.

Some analysts say that the storm showed how serious the conservative authorities were about blocking reformists' return to power and in particular Mr Khatami.

Conservatives are already evaluating the potential competition. "To be a winner, you need an enemy to unite your camp around you - but the reformist candidate should not be so strong as to actually win," said Amir Mohebbian, an influential conservative columnist, adding that he did not see Mr Khatami as much of a threat.

"Mr Khatami is a very beautiful crystal glass - he won't be able to withstand the stones that will be thrown against him," adds Mr Mohebbian.

"But Mr Karroubi is dangerous - he is very populist. His slogans sound just like Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's."

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