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Apr 18, 2000 | 05:00 GMT

Iran's Conservatives Shift Strategy

Iran's conservatives appear to be reconciling themselves to the likelihood of improved economic relations with the West. Two recent events - the seizure of an Iraqi tanker and an ongoing espionage trial - appear to seek favor with the United States and Europe. But conservatives appear to have launched a simultaneous crackdown. Actions on both of these fronts indicate that conservatives are bracing themselves for the social unrest that economic change will undoubtedly bring.

On April 14, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, warned that government-sanctioned violence has a place if it aims to protect the state, implying that force will be used to stave off unrest. Two days later, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Rahim Safavi, warned that enemies of the 20-year-old Islamic revolution would feel a ‘sledgehammer inside their skull,” in a statement carried by Tehran Radio.

These statements appear to be part of a larger strategy by conservatives who control key institutions, such as the courts and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

On one front, Iran's conservatives - a broad mix of both religious, cultural and military leaders - appear to be sending reassuring signals to the United States and Europe. The IRGC, elite troops controlled by religious leaders, have been responsible for halting Iraqi oil smuggling in the Persian Gulf - a move sure to please Washington. Responding to European concern at the espionage trial of 13 Iranian Jews, the conservative judiciary has suggested reduced charges against all but three defendants, access to defense lawyers and time for these lawyers to prepare.

Leaders appear to be reconciling themselves to the possibility of ties with the United States and Europe, while bracing for the social backlash that such change could bring.

Across a broad domestic front, conservatives appear to be engaged in a broad crackdown aimed at curbing the effects of economic and social reform.

Evidence can be found across Iran. Khamenei gave his warning during prayers in Tehran. The Council of Guardians is actively trying to keep reformers from taking the seats they won in the February 18 parliamentary elections. The council has nullified or overturned the results of eight elections in six different towns - Bandar Abbas, Minab, Gachsaran, Damavand, Khalkhal and Firuzkuh. The conservative Council of Guardians on April 16 overturned the election of a reformist candidate in West Azerbaijan province, in northwest Iran.

The council also began to recount votes in Tehran, but stopped when it became apparent that their candidate might lose his seat. Allies of President Mohammad Khatami originally won all of the disputed elections.

The basiji, Iran's religious militia, has renewed attempts to enforce Islamic dress codes, a move that sparked street clashes between young people and the basiji in the northern city of Rasht April 14, according to Agence France Presse. The outgoing conservative-led parliament also approved a series of press restrictions as one of its final acts. Additionally, on April 15 police arrested a member of the Tehran City Council who had fingered one of the suspects in the shooting of Khatami deputy Said Hajarian.

It appears now that the majority of the Iranian leadership agrees that Iran should engage the United States and Europe; only a few months ago, official opinion was divided. But recent disagreements within OPEC underscore the point that Iran cannot depend on an oil-based economy, and it can't build an industrial economy without western investment. Iran will continue to adjust its external policies to fit U.S. and European interests.

Until now, conservatives have argued that the price of economic opening was too high - that social upheaval would follow. This opinion seems to have been altered as conservative work to control - and probably pre-empt - social upheaval.
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